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By Cristina Silva June 24, 2010

Incumbents hard to beat

Underneath the loud tussling over who Florida's next governor and U.S. Senator will be runs a quiet political battle that could have far more lasting ramifications.

Two warring efforts to reshape how Florida's voter districts are drawn are gearing up across the state. On one side stands Fair Districts Florida, a citizens group that claims political leaders manipulate the redistricting process to benefit incumbents. They put two constitutional changes, Amendments 5 and 6, on the November ballot. The measures would require lawmakers to adhere to redistricting standards that don't favor incumbents when they redraw legislative and congressional lines starting next year.

On the other side are Republican lawmakers and a handful of minority leaders who argue the requirements set out in the amendments are both vague and impossible. They placed their own constitutional amendment on the ballot, Amendment 7, that would allow legislators to craft districts using "communities of interest," such as race or coastal communities.

"We asked them a very simple question, 'How does your plan to draw the districts work?' And they said, 'I don't know,'" said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, a critic of the Fair Districts campaign who pushed Amendment 7 through the 2010 legislative session. "I am not going to play politics with something as important as someone's voting rights."

But critics of the legislative amendment paint it as a ploy to confuse voters and gut the Fair Districts amendments.

Ellen Freidin, campaign chair of Fair Districts Florida, said Florida's redistricting process deters new candidates.

"They actually designed their districts specifically for themselves," she said. "They know how many registered voters in the district are Republican or Democratic so someone from the other side can't win because they stack it that way."

The Fair Districts Florida website explains the stakes this way: "In the last 6 years, there have been 420 elections for State Senator and State Representative. Only three incumbents have been defeated! After all, their districts are specially designed for them! With virtually certain seats, legislators have no incentive to be responsive to their constituents and they see no reason to compromise for the public good."

We aren't going to address the finger-wagging over which side is in the wrong. But Fair Districts' election statistics are ripe for a Truth-O-Meter item. We wondered, are Florida elections really that predictable?

The short answer is yes.

We checked the state Division of Elections site, which lists every state Senate and House candidate since 1996. It also lists the outcomes of each race, including primaries, special elections, runoffs and general elections.

In the past six years, Florida has held three regularly scheduled general elections and 17 special elections for Senate and House seats. By definition, special elections don't feature incumbents, so those campaigns are not relevant to our count.

In 2008, there were 141 seats up for grabs. In 2006, there were 140, and 2004 saw 142 seats enter into play. That amounts to 423 potential general elections in six years. There are many more elections if you count individual primaries, runoffs and general elections.

Freidin said her "420" figure was based on the number of Senate and House seats that might have been up for election during those three cycles.

From 2004 through 2010, many Florida incumbents won re-election when candidate qualifying closed because they drew no opponents. In 2004, every incumbent won re-election.

Of the incumbents who drew rivals, exactly three were defeated during that six-year span:

  • Republican Rep. Sheri McInvale of Orlando lost her 2006 general election to Rep. Scott Randolph, a Democrat from Orlando. Two Republicans, an independent and a write-in candidate  qualified in June 2010 to run against Randolph.
  • Republican Rep. Susan Goldstein of Weston was trumped in the 2006 general campaign by Rep. Marty Kiar, a Democrat from Davie, who was re-elected in June 2010 when no other candidate qualified to run.
  • Democratic Rep. Tony Sasso of Cocoa Beach failed to keep his seat during the 2008 general election. The winner was Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Republican from Merritt Island who was re-elected in June 2010 without opposition.

Fair Districts Florida's larger point that Florida races tend to be easy on incumbents still rang true after further scrutiny.

A review of the past six election cycles shows challengers had a slightly better chance of winning just before and right after the state's districts were redrawn in early 2002, but not by much. In that election year, four incumbents lost their seats in a race where 160 seats were initially up for grabs. In 2000, with 141 open seats, four other incumbents were defeated. In 1998, with 141 seats in play, four incumbents didn't win back their seats.

We'll do the math for you: just 15 state senators and representatives didn't win re-election bids over the span of six election cycles.

Haridopolos said incumbent victories aren't necessarily tied to redistricting. The winners could simply have run better campaigns or enjoyed higher name recognition, he said.

But our concern is the statement in question, which has to do with statistics, not cause and effect.

Fair Districts Florida got it right. We rate this claim True.

Our Sources

Website, Fair Districts Florida, accessed June 23, 2010.

Candidate listings, Florida Division of Elections, accessed June 23, 2010.

E-mail interview, Jennifer Davis, Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman, June 23, 2010.

Telephone interview, Kelly Penton, Fair Districts Florida spokeswoman, June 23, 2010.

Telephone interview, Ellen Freidin, campaign chair of Fair Districts Florida, June 17, 2010.

Telephone interview, Ellen Freidin, campaign chair of Fair Districts Florida, June 23, 2010.

Telephone interview, Florida Senator Mike Haridopolos, June 23, 2010.

St. Petersburg Times, "House Passes 'Clarifying' Amendment to Fair Districts," April 26, 2010.

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Incumbents hard to beat

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