OUR POSITION: The clear, noncontroversial alternative was to stick with status quo districts until after the census.
It came as no surprise that the Sarasota County Commission chose last week to proceed with plans to redraw commission district lines.
A majority on the commission had previously expressed support for the idea, despite sizable blow-back from community activists who’d led a successful campaign last year to change the method used in elect commission members in Sarasota County.
But the party politics underlying the question was inescapable. Also no surprise at a time when modern, sophisticated forms of gerrymandering have become a hot-button issue nationally, from Republican-dominant Florida to Democrat-dominant New York.
Sarasota County’s commissioners are all Republicans. The activists were — largely, it seems — Democrats, who for decades have been shut out of office under the old electoral system.
Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats 42% to 30% in Sarasota County. But pockets of the county — primarily the more-urban areas in and around the city of Sarasota — tilt Democratic. In a countywide election involving 315,262 registered voters, Republicans invariably win. If commission seats were decided only by voters in an individual district — about 80,000 voters — a candidate with less funding and a locally focused base might have better chance of winning.
Even a Democrat.
County voters overwhelmingly approved the activist-led referendum last November to switch from the countywide system to the single-district system. However, in a follow-through that came seemingly came out of the blue, Commissioner Nancy Detert brought up the idea of immediately redistricting — before the 10-year national census, not the year after, as is normal.
Her rationale was that equally sized districts were more critical in the new each-for-its-own system. In addition, redistricting needed to be done as soon as possible because three seats were up in next year’s election. (By law, redistricting must be done in an odd-numbered year.)
The argument was fair enough, but the fact of an election so close to the horizon added to suspicions. Commissioner Charles Hines’ is term-limited, so his seat is open. But Commissioners Nancy Detert and Mike Moran are up for re-election, so, presumably, they will be voting on the composition of their districts.
Is that not a conflict of interest?
The fact is that after eight years, per-district population is not evenly divided.
The numbers provided by a consultant showed a variation, in four districts, between 4% and 5.5% below the would-be norm. Nothing particularly dramatic. District 5 — the coastal Osprey-Venice-Englewood district — was an estimated 7.6% above, though. And, as Hines pointed out, brings all above the 10% deviation standard of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A fair argument, again.
Still, we can’t shake the impression that this exercise is a rationalization chasing a desired outcome. Instead of using estimates, we might have waited two years for the U.S. Census, which, despite criticism, provides the most reliable figures possible. We would have eliminated natural suspicions and charges of bottom-of-the-deck dealing for a political edge.
The measure passed 4-1. The process will move forward in a way that Detert and others promised will be “open and transparent.”
We’d like to be hopeful, but we just can’t shake our suspicions. We expect voters will have a hard time with that also.