TALLAHASSEE-Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed boundaries drawn for Florida’s 28 congressional districts Tuesday and will call lawmakers back into an April special session to meet his demand to reduce seats seen as likely to elect Black Democrats.
The Republican governor specifically targeted Congressional District 5 as unconstitutional and racially gerrymandered. Stretching from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, it’s where voters have elected Black Democratic US Rep. Al Lawson since 2016.
As he has argued for months, DeSantis insists that Florida’s constitutional standard for protecting Black-oriented districts conflicts with requirements in the US Constitution and recent federal case law involving redistricting.
He also is hinting that the state’s Fair Districts constitutional amendments passed by voters in 2010 and aimed at “prevent(ing) legislators from drawing lines favoring political parties or incumbents,” violate federal law and even the US Constitution.
Even as lawmakers ended their two-month session earlier this month, the governor vowed to veto the congressional plan when it was sent to him. It arrived on his desk Tuesday morning and, as he’d earlier said, it was “DOA,” or dead on arrival.
“It’s absolutely the responsibility of the Legislature to actually produce a map that can be signed into law,” DeSantis said Tuesday about his plan to call lawmakers back to the Capitol.
The governor later Tuesday set the special session for April 19-22. It’s now a race against the clock: A final congressional map has to be in place in time for June’s qualifying period for federal candidates.
DeSantis’ own redistricting plans
DeSantis earlier had submitted his own proposed congressional map that erased two of the state’s four districts with large minority populations, those currently represented by Lawson of Tallahassee and US Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat from Orlando who is running for US Senate.
The governor’s approach also would’ve made it likely for Republicans to win 18 of Florida’s 28 congressional districts, while a second map proposed by DeSantis raised that to 20 of the state’s seats.
The GOP currently holds 16 of the state’s 27 seats in Congress, with Florida this year adding a district because of population gains revealed in the latest census.
Republicans nationally are looking to maximize their seats in Florida as the party is riveted on recapturing control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections.
But DeSantis’ fellow Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature wouldn’t go along completely with the governor. Still, the congressional plan approved by lawmakers was crafted to curry some favor with the governor.
Lawmakers tried to satisfy governor
A primary map was approved that turned Lawson’s Congressional District 5 into a Duval County only district — which followed some of the governor’s recommendations — but still with a strong plurality of Black voters, which DeSantis didn’t want.
A secondary map, which could be approved by a court if it rejected the first because of how it treated minority voters, also was part of the package approved by the House and Senate. It left largely intact the 5th Congressional District’s shape, from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, where it links urban and rural Black communities across North Florida.
The two plans also created districts where Republicans could expect to win 18 of Florida’s 28 seats, basically what the governor initially demanded. Obviously, though, the strategy failed to win him over.
At session’s end, several lawmakers acknowledged that what the governor was seeking was an approach that would certainly face court challenges. Some even said congressional redistricting could go straight to court without even resulting in a special session for another attempt at line-drawing.
Ready for re-do
Still, in a joint statement Tuesday by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, the leaders seemed ready to try again at satisfying the governor.
“Our goal is for Florida to have a new congressional map passed by the Legislature, signed by the governor, and upheld by the court if challenged,” the statement said. “Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to exhaust every effort in pursuit of a legislative solution.”
In a seven-page memo that DeSantis general counsel Ryan Newman released Tuesday to support the veto, the governor makes the case that the Legislature’s plan violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
He also says the plan strays from a 2017 US Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina seat that found it unconstitutional to racially gerrymander a seat, except in narrow instances, which Lawson’s Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee district may not meet.
That North Carolina ruling came two years after Lawson’s 5th Congressional District was created by the Florida Supreme Court, which had taken over the map-making in the last round of eleven-every-decade redistricting because of constitutional violations by Republican lawmakers who drew the state’s initial maps.
“In January, DeSantis made it clear that his ultimate objective was to cut the number of African Americans and Hispanic Americans serving in Congress, so today’s veto is no surprise,” Lawson said in a statement.
“The fact that DeSantis justifies his goal to create racial disparities in congressional representation by citing the constitutional amendment created following the Civil War for the very purpose of remedying those same disparities is absurd and will be soundly rejected by any credible judge,” he added.
DeSantis argues that federal law conflicts with the state’s voter-approved Fair Districts amendments, which prohibit line-drawing that for minority voters, “diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
“I think there’s an internal inconsistency there,” DeSantis said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism