TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — In a rare move, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office has submitted its own congressional map into Florida’s redistricting process.
The governor has no role in the reapportionment of Florida House and Senate districts, but can veto the congressional district map. Florida will get an extra U.S. representative this year due to population growth recorded in the last census, bringing the delegation to 28 representatives.
The map submitted by Ryan Newman, general counsel for Gov. Ron DeSantis, is therefore just another public map proposal in the redistricting process — but because it comes from the governor’s office, it is forcing Republican leaders in the legislature to rethink how they move forward.
University of Florida political science professor and redistricting expert Michael McDonald said redistricting, especially when involving minority representation, is very tricky.
“This is something where you have to be very careful,” said McDonald. “You can’t cram too many minorities into the district so they win by an overwhelming margin. And you can’t put too few in such that they’re unable to elect a candidate of their choice. So you gotta be just right.”
Those strategies, known colloquially as “packing” and “cracking” a district, dilute the representation of minorities.
McDonald said there are some issues with the the governor’s office map, including that it completely alters the current map structure of the 5th congressional district of Rep. Al Lawson (D-Jacksonville), which was drawn by courts after the previous redistricting process resulted in gerrymandered maps that were challenged in legal actions.
“It ain’t there — it’s gone,” said McDonald. “Without it, I think that this map would be very vulnerable to a Section 2 voting rights challenge in federal court, and could be vulnerable to a state voting rights challenge under the Fair Districts amendment.”
Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, told 8 On Your Side in an email that its map “performs better than many of the legislative maps on the tier 2 constitutional requirements including compactness and preservation of boundaries, all while increasing the number of federally protected minority districts.”
Under the existing congressional map, there is only one protected district with a majority of black voters. Our map keeps a majority black district. Both Senate and House maps, by contrast, contain no majority black districts. You’ll notice the proposed map actually INCREASES the number of minority districts, specifically districts where the Hispanic voting age population is greater than 50%. This is two more districts than in the existing congressional map, and one more district than in either of the proposed House and Senate plans.
Additionally, the northern Florida district is an unconstitutional gerrymander that unnaturally connects communities in Jacksonville with communities hours away in in Tallahassee and Gadsden counties. We eliminated this flagrant gerrymander.Taryn Fenske, Communications Director for Gov. Ron DeSantis
“The [governor’s office] response provides evidence of the usage of a clear bright line 50% minority population threshold that is contrary to federal law,” said McDonald. “The proper minority population threshold is the population needed to elect a candidate of choice, determined by analyses of voting patterns, not a bright 50% number. I was involved in Virginia litigation successfully overturning Virginia’s congressional districts on this point, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Furthermore, the claim regarding the current 5th congressional district ignores Florida’s constitution, which requires “districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
The ending phrase “or diminish their ability to elect” is similar to the (currently non-operative) federal Voting Rights Act Section 5, which formerly would have required drawing a minority district with a population effective for the minority community. The legislature clearly believes that 5th district is required, although it is unclear if they believe it is required under federal or state law since they have not provided guidance to this effect.Michael McDonald, University of Florida professor of political science
The Fair Districts amendments, passed by voters into the Florida Constitution in 2010, prevent the maps from being drawn to create partisan advantages. Multiple analyses of the governor’s office map shows it increases Republican-held districts from 16 currently to 18.
“The effect of a partisan increase is not illegal,” said Fla. Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R-Howey-in-the-Hills), who will be running for Congress in central Florida in one of the redrawn districts. “If it’s the intent to increase partisan races then that would be illegal, and of course there’s no intent.”
“I like the governor’s plan,” said Sabatini. “It’s time to get a map that creates more districts that have exurban- and suburban-dominant areas, and that is very dissimilar from what exists right now, where I think the urban areas are really dominating a lot of the seats. And I don’t really like that.”
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) expressed concern with the governor’s office map.
“It’s just very interesting to see that he is really trying to dilute Black voices in the state of Florida,” said Driskell. “And for him to drop this map on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is frankly very troubling.”
The governor’s map also significantly changes districts in the Tampa Bay area, something maps in the Florida House and Senate also do.
The 13th district seat, currently held by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), moves further north in Pinellas County, making it more Republican. The 14th district seat, currently held by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa), shifts west across Old Tampa Bay to include St. Petersburg.
“It looks like he is illegally trying to pack all black voters into the same district,” said Driskell. “He’s drawing a district that crosses over from Tampa over into Pinellas. As I understand it, under the redistricting standards, that would be packing.”
“But you can even look beyond the Tampa Bay region to see examples of this happening,” said Driskell. “He is effectively obliterating Rep. Al Lawson’s district, he also is impacting Rep. Val Demings’ seat, who is running against Marco Rubio for Senate. To me, his map very clearly violates Tier 1 standards.”
The Florida Senate will hear two bills on redistricting Wednesday afternoon in its first floor session since the opening day of the legislative session on January 11.