The measures, which barely crossed the required 60-percent threshold, mandate that: "No apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent." At the same time, redistricting should not have the "result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process." The districts must also be contiguous and compact.
Previously, state law required only that districts share a common boundary, or be contiguous.
The wording of the measures is crystal clear; the problem, as some have pointed out, is there is no enforcement mechanism, and redistricting is historically a tricky business. The party in power tends to find ways to draw voting districts to its advantage.
Still, passage was seen as a major victory for the measures' proponents.
"I really think that it has something to do with the mood of the people who are tired of the hyper-partisanship that they're seeing in politics today," Ellen Freidin, campaign chairwoman of FairDistrictsFlorida.org,
the group leading the push for the amendments, told the Associated Press. "Those who voted for them . . . recognized that they didn't want politicians to continue choosing their voters and rigging districts for their own political gain."
The redistricting vote was "probably the only silver lining for Democrats" coming out of Election Day, said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. Democrats should be able to expect – or argue in any future court challenges to future redistricting plans – that new districts accurately reflect the state's party registration. There are 4.6 million registered Democrats, 4.04 million Republicans and 2.2 million independents.
With Republicans in overwhelming control of both houses of the legislature, as well as the governor's mansion, the GOP would otherwise have carte blanche to design new congressional districts. Based on the 2010 census, Florida is expected to pick up two additional congressional seats in 2012, for a total of 27 seats. The post-election line-up in January will be 19 Republicans and six Democrats.
But, while half a dozen other states have independent commissions to ensure nonpartisan redistricting, Jewett cautioned that nonpartisan redistricting is "definitely against legislative DNA," and that those in power may adhere to the letter rather than the spirit of the ballot measures.
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, agrees.
"One would assume that given the complete Republican control of the governorship and the legislature, any kind of new restraints imposed by the voters would make it more difficult for the GOP mapmakers to maximize their advantage," Brown said. "When drawing a map, it is always easier to add to seats than to subtract seats, because you are adding jobs, not subtracting," Brown said.
Drawing legislative boundaries to favor ruling parties is historical, dating back to England, when underpopulated constituencies were called "rotten boroughs." In the early years of the American republic, Massachusetts' Gov. (and later U.S. Vice President) Elbridge Gerry gave his name to a district shaped like a salamander – Gerrymander. In the years since, the U.S. Supreme Court has given state legislatures free reign, as long as the districts they draw are roughly equal in population and are not designed to dilute the representation of racial or ethnic minorities.
The Florida amendments were backed by most of the state's newspapers and groups like the League of Women Voters. Some Cuban-American Republican and African-American Democratic incumbent members of Congress opposed the measures, charging it would reduce the number of majority-minority districts, which tend to be concentrated in urban areas.
The language of the two ballot measures sound like standard-issue good government fare, an idealistic throwback to the Progressive Era. But the problem is, no one knows how they are likely to be implemented.
"It's not going to achieve its desired effect," predicted Terri Susan Fine, of the University of Central Florida. In the end, "it's going to be handled by the courts and it's bound to haphazard, on a case-by-case basis."