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Redistricting Sarasota County is a no-win proposition

To redistrict now or wait doesn’t matter. The outcome will be the same: lawsuits and a government that weakens voters’ voices.

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This was a no-win proposition for Sarasota County commissioners — what to do about redistricting after the 2018 elections in which 60% of the county’s voters approved the creation of five single-member voting districts.

Indeed, when the calendar turned to 2019, commissioners faced a series of dilemmas:

For one, unfortunately, the ballot question did not specify when the districts were to be drawn. But you could interpret if you were a commissioner the fact the charter amendment passed so decisively was a message voters wanted single-member districts now. You could say there was a sense of urgency in those election results.

So the question became: What about now?

There were compelling reasons to do so. Certainly, there was the will of the voters. If they waffled and delayed, that would open them to all sorts of criticism about protecting their jobs.

And there is this: State law requires redistricting occur only in odd years. Do it in 2019, so the new districts would be ready for the 2020 election.

One more reason for now: The county’s population has grown and shifted over the decade, which has created unequal numbers. State law requires each of the commission districts be as equal in population “as possible.”

So now imagine: What if the commission waited until after the 2020 census, when new official population figures come out? That would mean keeping existing (and unequal) districts for the 2020 election, drawing new districts in 2021 and not having single-member district elections until 2022  — four years after voters said they wanted single-member districts.

All of which would make the commission ripe for lawsuits.

You could envision a group of voters objecting after the 2020 election that unequal population disenfranchised them and denied them the equality of one man, one vote.

Redistrict now? Or wait until after the 2020 census?

The outspoken public sentiment favored waiting. Residents  objected to two maps up for consideration, one of which was a derivative of a map drawn by Robert Waechter, a Republican activist who was convicted in 2013 for making campaign donations using someone else’s name.

Speaker after speaker at commission meetings, including Tuesday morning, told commissioners they must wait and emphatically urged them not to adopt either of two proposed redistricting maps.

Dee McFarland, head of the Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus, said they would be gerrymandering in a “racist district process that suppresses minority voters. I am not calling you a racist; the implementation is racist.” One woman told commissioners the fact “no Democrat has sat on this board for 40 years is appalling.” Lawyer Dan Lobeck accused them of being bought off by developers, “the cabal.” One Democratic Party activist said commissioners would no longer “have the moral authority to govern.”

The Sarasota City Commission spoke as well. It adopted a resolution Monday proclaiming Sarasota County’s black voters, in particular those in Newtown, are “a community which for so long encountered … harassment, intimidation and economic reprisals” and “that voting for one of the maps would expose commissioners … to further allegations of voter suppression and racism.”

In spite of the beat-down, commissioners Nancy Detert, Mike Moran and Alan Maio voted to adopt the Waechter derivative. We don’t have the space to share the specifics of their reasoning. You should watch them at:

But they defended their votes, employing what we would argue is justifiable and what the county attorney called “defensible” reasoning: the statutory obligation to create districts of equal numbers and as Detert said districts that meet the statutory standards of being compact, contiguous, including “communities of interest”;and neither favoring or disfavoring an incumbent.

Unfortunately, now watch the lawsuits rumble into Sarasota County like tanks on a battlefield. No doubt, Sarasota’s own Hugh Culverhouse Jr. is starting his legal engine.


Democratic party playbook

Ah, yes, this is all going according to the playbook. The playbook of Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney general who is leading the Democratic Party’s efforts to use the courts to redraw the political maps in the nation’s red states to make it easier for Democrats.

It’s not about the marketplace of ideas. This is politics circa 2019, to get the courts involved in a legislative process.

The dirty word is “gerrymandering.” You know the image: powerbrokers and politicians rigging the system in their favor, everyone else be damned.

News flash: Gerrymandering is the essence of politics. And politics is all about those in power using that power to tilt the scales of everything in their favor. When that Northern transplant told county commissioners it’s appalling not to have a Democrat serving on the County Commission in 40 years, she might look how Democrats controlled the Legislature here for 50 years until the 1980s and that 75% of the state’s 45 governors have been Democrats.

To be sure, Sarasota and Manatee counties are a source of great frustration for Democrats. Just look at the numbers in the accompanying box.

Tired of that station in life in Sarasota County, Democratic Party activists worked hard in 2018 to sell Sarasota County voters on how single-member County Commission districts will give them a greater voice in county politics.

Intuitively, people like the idea of having their own neighborhood representative, as opposed to having five representatives whom they don’t know and who represent all 426,000 county residents equally.

But overall, single-member districts are a bad idea.

The good: Yes, single-member district commissioners are closer to their constituents. And it’s easier and less costly for candidates to campaign for election, having to focus on a smaller territory. Voters, likewise, won’t have to pay attention or know all five commissioners.

But there is much more that works against voters and taxpayers: Instead of having your voice and vote be important to all five commissioners, now only your district commissioner will care what you say. The other four — they don’t care about your concerns. You can’t vote them out.

Balkanization increases. What is best for the county at large is sacrificed for what’s best for “my district.” Single-member district commissioners from elsewhere told us: Watch out. If you have strong and weak commissioners, the weak ones will get trounced. Strong commissioners will hog all of the resources for roads, sewers and other projects, dumping the detritus into the weak commissioners’ districts (e.g. jails, landfills, etc.).

And for those who say single-member districts will emasculate the influence of developers and money — hah! Get real. They still will be able to contribute to each commissioner and influence who is elected.


Let best ideas win

For the sake of community peace, it would have been better for the commissioners to hold off until after the census. That would have postponed the lawsuits at least until 2021, and it would have silenced the false claim of African American voters being disenfranchised.

It’s too bad Sarasota County must go through this strife and what is to come. As this process of affirmative action for Democrats unfolds in Republican-dominated Sarasota County, voters inevitably are going to find out five single-member districts is a bad form of government. Either go back to five at-large districts, or expand the commission to seven to include two at-large seats that would give voters more of a voice.

Either way, regardless of party, the candidates with the best ideas should, and will, win.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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