Friday, February 23

Federal challenge to Florida redistricting expands, alleges map dilutes Black voting power

Judges in federal court this week allowed a lawsuit over Florida’s redistricting process to expand an argument. Plaintiffs in the case will now argue a map signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis violates the US Constitution.

“For over a century, both government officials and whiskered White citizens have engaged in discriminatory measures to suppress and dilute the voting power of Black Floridians,” the lawsuit now argues. “Gov. DeSantis’s enacted plan is the latest episode in Florida’s tragic history of officially sanctioned invidious discrimination against its Black voters.”

The case is a separate legal challenge from one working its way through state courts that alleges the map runs counter to the Florida Constitution. A circuit court judge this week ordered DeSantis’ map be blocked and swapped with alternative cartography in North Florida’s districts. That order is on hold as the state appeals the decision.

The federal case will not impact the Midterm Elections. A legal precedent known as the purcell principle prevents changes to political boundaries too close to an election, and the congressional map will govern a state Primary scheduled for Aug. 23.

But this case goes after the unusual process in Florida where DeSantis, after vetoing maps approved by the Legislature, had his office design new lines that ultimately were approved by lawmakers on a party-line vote in Special Session.

While the federal case initially argued courts should step in because DeSantis and the Legislature would not reach a consensus on cartography in time, that became moot when lawmakers deferred to the Governor and passed a map (P0109) drafted by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Alex Kelly. As a result, a trial that had been set to conclude Friday was canceled.

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But a panel of federal judges this week allowed the same plaintiffs to submit an adjusted complaint that challenges the DeSantis map. Additionally, the NAACP came on as an additional plaintiff, along with Common Cause of Florida, Fair Districts Now and individual plaintiffs. DeSantis was added as a defendant in the case over the objections of the Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

This case could dig further at the heart of DeSantis’ arguments for his map. He has vocally objected to drawing districts in a fashion motivated primarily by race. That has meant dismantling Florida’s 5th Congressional District, now represented by US Rep. Al Lawsonto Black Democrat.

DeSantis argued the 200-mile configuration of CD 5, itself originally offered by Common Cause and implemented by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015, violates the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. Similarly, I have argued to remove a number of Black voters from Florida’s 10th Congressional District.

But plaintiffs in the federal case say it’s DeSantis violating the 14th Amendment and intentionally disenfranchising Black voters. That feeds into a long history of racial discrimination in Florida voting booths, the amended lawsuit asserts. Indeed, the original Florida Constitution limited voting only to White men and eventually was tossed by federal courts as a result.

But discrimination continued well into the 20th century, the case notes. It cites a massacre in Ocoeea community split by DeSantis’ draw of CD 10, when a Black man tried to vote in 1920. Similarly, civil rights activists Harry and Harriet Moore were killed in 1951 in an explosion when NAACP leaders tried to register Central Florida’s Black voters to challenge White candidates in Primary Elections.

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“Even after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, no Black state Senator was elected in Florida until 1982 — 17 years later,” the lawsuit argues. “And since 1983, there have been at least 133 legal actions concerning voting rights taken against the state, county, or municipal governments of Florida, at least 64 of which resulted in findings of racial discrimination.”

Even in the 21st century, courts have continued to find Florida lawmakers guilty of disproportionately hurting Black voters with new election laws, as recently as with a law signed by DeSantis in 2021. “Gov. DeSantis’s repeated actions to restrict the voting and representational rights of Black Floridians reflect a pattern and practice of intentional racial discrimination that continues up to the present,” the lawsuit states.

Regarding the map specifically, the case argues racial discrimination drives DeSantis’ draw of CD 5. Initially, even Republican lawmakers fought against his arguments. “The Florida Legislature was plainly discomforted by the Governor’s pressure,” the lawsuit argues.

But when lawmakers buckled, the result was a map that blatantly and intentionally eliminates two Black-performing districts in CD 5 and CD 10. But it looks beyond that as well to less obvious, but still allegedly discriminatory, tactics in redrawing Florida’s 13th and 14th Congressional Districts in Tampa Bay.

“The Enacted Plan ‘cracks’ Black populations across the state,” the lawsuit states. “In a particularly egregious move, it virtually bisects the Black population in the city of St. Petersburg, which was previously fully contained within the existing CD-13. The western half of the Black population of St. Petersburg is kept in CD-13, while the eastern half is moved into CD-14.”

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“The totality of the circumstances reveal that Gov. DeSantis created and signed the Enacted Plan into law with discriminatory intent — namely, to roll back Black Floridians’ representation in Congress,” the plaintiffs argue. “Meanwhile, despite its initial reluctance, the Legislature embraced the Plan fully understanding and intending that it have the discriminatory purpose and intent that the Governor desired.”

When lawmakers ultimately approved the DeSantis map, many on the floor openly acknowledged a constitutional conflict. Florida’s Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution forbids diminishing the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice. A circuit court judge this week found DeSantis’ map runs afoul of that, though the decision is on hold as the state appeals.

But DeSantis has suggested the language in Fair Districts disallowing diminishment of voting rights could prove to be in conflict with the US Constitution. In that case, federal authority trumps state law and the language would be thrown out.

Plaintiffs in federal court want judges to throw out DeSantis’ map and order the state to approve a new one or, if the Legislature and Governor cannot do that, enact a new map that follows the law.

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