Op-EdOpinion

WILSON: Access Is Always Appropriate — Even in a Pandemic

This year we have an opportunity to do something that we will not be able to do for another 10 years: ensure our future by demanding a fair and accessible community districting process. We will do that by engaging in the redistricting process, or the redrawing of district lines. The drawing of districts gives local people an opportunity to choose their representatives and determine the resources communities receive. The resources include funding for schools, parks, libraries, hospitals and social services.

But to win what our communities need, legislative leaders must ensure an open and fair process. They must announce redistricting hearings in enough time for people to participate, create a simple way for community members to access the hearings and hold hearings in a COVID-19 safe manner. But some of the past behavior of our elected leaders demonstrates cause for concern.

In Florida, the legislative session is a sparse 60 days. During the 2020 session, legislators barred the public from feasibly attending committee hearings. The public was unable to access the state building and was forced to go to offsite locations like the convention center and log onto remote access software to share public testimony. They were not able to log on from the comfort of their homes, and there were no accommodations for persons with disabilities.

The legislature should clear barriers to democracy, not create them. But in that case, the legislature closed its doors, leaving many Floridians unable to participate. There was no access for the public. With this incident in recent memory, there is understandable concern about the redistricting process.

The redistricting process is one of the few chances communities have to level the playing field and create lines that serve them, not elected officials. In Florida, though, even that which is common sense is not so common. For instance, COVID-19 killed one Floridian every four minutes in the first week of September. Thus far, more than 48,000 people in the state have died from the illness, and school districts that require masks to help prevent the spread of the virus could be punished. State officials also said businesses would be fined $5,000 for requiring vaccines for their employees. Those threats were made even as the number of people who died from COVID-19 in the first eight months of 2021 surpassed the number of people who died in the state in all of 2020.

We know that most Floridians have either had COVID-19 or know someone who has had it. And some people are at heightened risk. Communities of color, persons who are poor, persons designated as essential workers and persons who are immunocompromised are uniquely vulnerable. All of that helps to explain why the DELTA variant is causing a new round of fear.

Given the pandemic-related challenges facing the state, elected officials must be cautious about how they conduct redistricting hearings. They should not use COVID-19 as a pretense for closing the process, but they should ensure the process is as safe as possible. In a place hard hit by the virus, redistricting hearings must be done in a way that mitigates the spread of COVID-19 without curtailing Floridians’ ability to participate in the process. Creating a closed-off process benefits those seeking to remain in power. But politicians should not be able to manipulate districts to silence the voices of voters and strip away resources from our communities.

By opening the process, we can all get involved and ensure our communities remain whole and are heard, included and visible so that we can choose our own representatives who will be responsive to our needs. That is what I’m fighting for. After all, access is always appropriate – even in a pandemic.

Jamara Wilson is the redistricting manager for Equal Ground. She is based in Melbourne, Florida.

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