Lawmakers convene special session on governor’s plan to add 4 Republican-leaning seats, nuke North Florida majority-minority district
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Florida lawmakers will be back in Tallahassee this week to approve a new U.S. House map, with the Republicans in charge ready (or maybe just resigned?) to letting Governor Ron DeSantis take the lead – a decision that’s almost certain to result in both state and federal court fights over how far Republicans can go in gerrymandering the map to their advantage.
DeSantis has proposed a new map that will add four GOP-leaning seats across the state, giving the party a shot at winning 20 of 28 seats – in a state where Republicans usually only win by single-digit margins in statewide races.
Potentially more problematically from a legal perspective, DeSantis wants to nuke the current 5th District in North Florida, a Democratic-leaning, majority-minority district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
Instead, metro Jacksonville will be carved into two Republican-leaning districts, and Tallahassee and rural areas in the district will be subsumed into two existing districts, which have heavy GOP majorities.
DeSantis has railed against the 5th District, which was created by the Florida Supreme Court after a lawsuit over the 2012 U.S. House map. Its existence was the primary reason he vetoed the map approved earlier this year by Republican legislators, who were wary of trying to dismantle a district that is 47% black, represented by black Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.
But DeSantis has insisted he wants a “race neutral” map, in which districts aren’t drawn with racial considerations in mind, and Republican legislative leaders now appear resigned to letting him get his way.
While DeSantis’s new map leaves the current line-up of seats in South Florida intact, he’s rejiggered the lines in Tampa Bay to make the 13th District in Pinellas County (currently held by Democrat Charlie Crist) more Republican and also made changes in metro Orlando to give the currently competitive 7th District (held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy) a decidedly Republican tilt.
Currently, there are 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats in Florida’s House delegation. Under the new map, there will be 18 Republican-leaning seats, eight that lean Democratic and two in South Florida that will be competitive but are now both held by Republicans.
Should DeSantis’s map pass as is, the legal fight will commence in two directions.
First, in 2010, Florida voters passed two constitutional amendments, dubbed the Fair Districts amendments, designed to prevent legislators from drawing maps designed to protect incumbents or create partisan advantage. This makes Florida somewhat unique among states by limiting, at least in theory, how far legislators can go in partisan map making.
In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court cited those very amendments in overturning the U.S. House map drawn in 2012 and imposing a new one, which created the districts that Lawson and Murphy won.
However, thanks to appointments by DeSantis and his predecessor as governor, Rick Scott, the state’s high court is more conservative that it was in 2015, and there is speculation the justices will look more favorably on legislators’ handiwork this time around.
But what also remains as a potential impediment to DeSantis’s best-laid plans is the federal Voting Rights Act. Although Florida no longer has to get clearance from the Justice Department for its maps, they still must conform to the act’s purpose of maximizing minority voting representation.
North Florida has sent an African-American representative to Congress continuously since 1992; DeSantis’s proposed map would almost certainly end that representation for the foreseeable future, which will certainly raise voting rights concerns.
It would also have the effect of reducing the number of black Congress members from the Sunshine State from five to four. (Those numbers include Republican Byron Donalds, who represents a mostly white district in Southwest Florida; South Florida Democrats Federica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; and Democrat Val Demings from Orlando.)
That would leave Florida’s black representation in the congressional delegation at about 14%, the same as the state’s black voting age population – which could be an argument in the map’s favor despite the loss of the North Florida seat.
And the final arbiter of a federal challenge to DeSantis’s new map might very well be the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative justices seem ready and eager to wade into the issue of voting rights.
In a larger sense, the fight over the maps also shows how DeSantis, in just four short years, has come to amass enough power to bring legislative leaders to heel – in this case, even against their better judgment.