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Evidence in lawsuit points to DeSantis inconsistency on congressional districts


Evidence in lawsuit points to DeSantis inconsistency on congressional districts

Oct 02, 2023 | 6:02 pm ET
By Michael Moline
Evidence in lawsuit points to DeSantis inconsistency on congressional districts
Courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Credit: Michael Moline

Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the Legislature’s efforts to draw a Black opportunity congressional district in North Florida while letting state House and Senate districts drawn along the same principles pass into law without objection.

That testimony came Monday in a lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan the governor forced on the Legislature last year on grounds that the district was too sprawling and amounted to a racial gerrymander.

The axed district extended some 200 miles from Duval to Gadsden counties and was held by Black Democrat Al Lawson for a decade.

Yet Matthew Barreto, a political science professor at the University of California Los Angeles, pointed to at least three legislative districts in Florida approved during last year’s decennial reapportionment that shared the same features — including that they extended relatively far distances to capture Black voting populations. The Legislature redrew its own districts at the same time as the congressional map.

The seats he identified were state House districts 19 and 62 in the Tampa Bay area and 117 in South Florida. In each case, the Legislature attempted to comply with the 1964 Voting Rights Act and Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment to the state Constitution, which forbid partisan gerrymandering and diminishment of minority representation.

The parallels between the legislative and congressional district boundaries that Barreto identified were striking.

These legislative seats “used the same logic and in some cases the same boundaries and shapes” as the proposed CD 5, drawn to give populations along Florida’s old slavery belt if not a majority a good shot at electing the representative of their choice, Barreto said.

“And there was no objection at all. In fact, they were enacted and implemented,” he said.

Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer defending the DeSantis districts map on behalf of the state, noted that, unlike congressional districts that a governor may veto if he or she likes, the Legislature holds complete control over its own districts, subject to approval by the Florida Supreme Court.

The testimony came on Day 3 of trial in a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and individual voters who hope to prove that the DeSantis plan for a congressional map was designed specifically to disenfranchise Black voters in North Florida — which would be ground for the court to order the Legislature to revisit the district.

If the state loses, it could set up a U.S. Supreme Court test both of the Voting Rights Act and Fair Districts. However, that court ruled against the state of Alabama in a similar case in June.

Striking parallels

In addition to limiting Black representation, the governor’s map gave Republicans 20 of the state’s 28 congressional districts, but no one has challenged that as a partisan gerrymander.

As usual for an elections case, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, sitting in Tallahassee, is hearing the case: Adalberto Jordan, Casey Rogers, and Alan Windsor. In a separate challenge in state court, a trial judge ruled the DeSantis plan violated the Florida and U.S. Constitution. The case is now before the First District Court of Appeal.

The Legislature actually approved two versions of CD 5: a primary map, containing a Black-opportunity district within the boundaries of Duval County, and a backup, featuring a version of Lawson’s old district, which the Florida Supreme Court drew to end protracted litigation following the post-2010 U.S. Census, in an attempt to appease the governor’s concerns about sprawl. It would have been up to the courts to decide.

There’s no need for such opportunity districts to contain a majority of Black voters, Barreto said — it’s enough if minority voters can team up with allies in other groups to elect their candidates. That was the case for both versions of the Black district the Legislature OK’d, he said.

DeSantis claimed the elongated district combined disparate communities into an unwieldy monster district, but Barreto testified that its voters had more in common with each other than with the populations in the white-dominated districts that became law, including in levels of education, income, poverty levels, and child-rearing.

As for the Duval-only district, its creation would have required a CD 4 to wrap around the Black-opportunity district, gathering voters in Nassau, the Duval beach communities, and St. Johns counties and DeSantis objected to that.

But the state Senate map did the same thing, Barreto said — in fact, those districts were nearly “identical” to state Senate districts in the same area, evidence of an “insincere objection” by the governor, to his mind.

‘Ended up a farce’

Earlier in the day, Fentrice Driskell, a Black attorney from Hillsborough County who heads the Democratic Caucus in the state House, testified that legislative Republican leaders initially voiced commitment to respecting the VRA and Fair Districts.

Driskell vaulted them for failure to engage the public enough in redistricting, but agreed they acted in good faith until the governor took the unprecedented step of vowing to veto any map too generous to Black-opportunity districts, the North Florida one in particular.

Driskell sat on the House Redistricting Committee last year.

“It started out a legitimate process,” she testified, but “ended up a farce.”

In the end, “the Legislature failed. It delegated its duty to the governor,” she added.

A lawyer representing the state pressed Driskell about whether her objections had more to do with political differences with the Republican governor. As Democratic leader, it’s part of her job to elect more Democrats, and she participated with national party efforts to guide redistricting this cycle, he noted.

“My only focus is for us to get this right,” Driskell said of redistricting. That’s “what matters most.”

When the final bill came to a floor vote in the House, Black Democrats staged a protest that forced the chamber into recess — until the Republicans reconvened and pushed the bill through on a partisan vote.

“The members were all feeling so silenced,” Driskell said. “A people’s protest was the only way for their voices to be heard.”