Scrutiny Isn't Hypocrisy

Guest Correspondence


Reporters get called plenty of names these days. Of late, I’ve heard the word “hypocrite” thrown around when it comes to scrutiny of Sarasota County Commission plans to redistrict ahead of the 2020 Census.

The story goes media all but ignored when Sarasota County School Board redistricted in 2017, apparently for explicitly political reasons. Yet, reporters now raise questions about county commissioners today. Why? Bias? Favoritism? I most often here we’re just hypocrites.

I wish people would at least look up insults before hurling them. Reporters endure, and occasionally deserve, withering criticism. But paying attention to whether county commissioners try to openly subvert the will of voters isn’t hypocrisy.

Let’s turn, as many a lazy columnist has, to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. How does the big book define hypocrisy? “Behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.”

But see, it’s not the behavior of journalists at question. We haven’t redistricted any political boundaries. Nor will we.

Maybe let’s use the word in a sentence. If elected officials openly assert it was terrible for the School Board to redistrict in an off-year to benefit one of their own politically, but then do exactly the same thing, that’s hypocrisy.

Say journalists were lazy and inattentive in 2017. I’ll take that. I don’t closely monitor memos sent by School Board members to district attorneys. If I did, I hope I would notice a request by School Board member Shirley Brown for districts to be redrawn so she could move into a different home but remain in her old district. The board ultimately allowed just that

You could accuse of a double standard, though I don’t recall anybody in the media endorsing the School Board move. If it helps, I’ll say now such brazen politicking abuses the power of School Board members to draw their own districts. 

Do we all agree this was a bad things to do? If so, how are Sarasota County Commissioners’ intentions different?

I wish media paid closer attention in 2017. Nevertheless, there are reasons the impending redistricting draws more attention. First is the recent single-member district vote; commissioners make no bones the change motivates considering reapportionment.

But the impacts of such a move also reach well beyond the political class. Beyond just benefiting or wounding candidates, choosing to redistrict now, only to do it again in 2021, will inevitably disenfranchise a group of voters.

Almost certainly, some will be denied the right to vote for any county commissioner for a six-year period. Quite likely, that number will include many who desperately want single-member representation.

How can this happen? Voters living in Districts 1, 3 or 5, entitling them to vote in 2020, could be drawn into even-numbered districts and be denied the chance. If any of those same voters get drawn into odd-numbered districts in two years, they will be again be denied the right to vote.

This is partly a consequence of single-member districts, shifting away from a system where every county voter can participate in every cycle. But toying with lines twice in as many cycles, using two completely different methodologies for mapping populations, worsens the effect for voters who get moved from district to district. 

Cynical observers might anticipate Democratic-leaning precincts to be shifted out of districts cycle after cycle. And who knows how often commissioners will find a need to “rebalance” districts again.

If you feel the arguments for redistricting now outweigh that, fine. Truthfully, commissioners could redraw districts just to prove they can. I might better respect that over contrived arguments about averting phantom lawsuits.

But questioning the logic, especially when benefits for commissioners not facing term limits appears so clear, isn’t hypocritical. Indeed, it’s journalists fulfilling their role as watchdogs of the pillars of democracy.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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