Florida is synonymous to most people with Disney World and the hip global city of Miami. So it’s hard to imagine that as recently as 50 years ago, the state was controlled by a small group of conservative white men from the northern Panhandle who were known as the Pork Chop Gang.
Under an old and outdated state constitution, the system of electing state lawmakers gave disproportionate power to sparsely populated, rural counties near the border with Georgia and Alabama where values of the segregated Deep South persisted.
“The state was stuck in the past, yet the eyes of the world were on Florida,” said Mary Adkins, law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and author of “Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New Constitution.”
Adkins spoke March 10 at the Orange County Regional History Center’s 2019 Brechner Speaker Series held in partnership with the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Orange County. The four-part series focuses on the historic role of women as “warriors for democracy.”
Adkins described how progressive Floridians and northern transplants fought for decades to rewrite the old 1868 constitution and change the system of allocating seats in the state legislature and in Florida’s delegation to the U.S. Congress.
“The League of Women Voters of Florida was with the constitutional reform every step of the way,” Adkins said.
Adkins said the old constitution allowed each county a maximum of three representatives in the state House. As the populations of South and Central Florida exploded, the relative power of voters in small Panhandle counties increased to the point that 12.8% of the population could elect a majority of the state’s representatives.
By 1958, then-Gov. Leroy Collins recognized the need to reform the constitution. Collins appointed a five-person committee which included one woman, Rep. Maxine Baker of Miami, an LWV member. Within a few years, federal and state courts stepped in to force states to draw district lines in a fair manner, Adkins said.
Florida’s current constitution, adopted in 1968, places the legislature in charge of reapportionment, which occurs every 10 years after a new U.S. census. The newly drawn districts are subject to review by the Florida Supreme Court.
In 2010, Florida voters passed two Fair District constitutional amendments requiring legislators to draw logical districts without intentional favoritism for incumbents or the party in power.
In recent years, the LWV, along with Common Cause, has successfully sued to invalidate gerrymandered redistricting maps drawn by the legislature to favor incumbents’ ability to win re-election.
The final event in the Brechner series, scheduled for April 14, features a multimedia presentation on the league’s upcoming book, “Warriors for Democracy: The Story of the Orange County League of Women Voters.”