By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his clearest redistricting veto threat yet Monday, even as the state House coalesced around a plan to approve two versions of congressional districts, with one kicking in only if a Jacksonville district were declared unconstitutional.

While the Florida House has rejected DeSantis’ claims that protecting Jacksonville’s Black voters is unconstitutional, redistricting staff said a Jacksonville-only district would still protect Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates.

DeSantis and his expert witness have argued that maintaining the current Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee version of the 5th District isn’t compact and is unconstitutional because race played too prominent a role in its drawing.

The House conceded that some of DeSantis’ “novel legal arguments” have not been tested in court, so House Speaker Chris Sprowls urged the chamber to approve a belt-and-suspenders approach that would actually adopt both a Jacksonville-only district and a Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee backup in case the first one is struck down.

Both the Jacksonville-only and Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee versions, redistricting staff said, would allow Black voters to elect the candidates of their choice.

DeSantis continued to criticize the Legislature’s approach of drawing districts intentionally to protect Black voters. Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, told Politico, “They’ve made bizarre and confusing changes that don’t seem to remedy the underlying legal concerns.”

At a news conference Monday, DeSantis reiterated his threat to veto any map that includes what he believes are unconstitutional districts. “That is a guarantee. They can take that to the bank.”

On its face, the Jacksonville-only plan appears to be more Republican-friendly than past proposals, but that’s only based on the most recent statewide election.

Donald Trump would’ve won 18 of the 28 seats, but more districts would be competitive. Eight of the seats would’ve been won by Trump or Joe Biden by 10 points or less, including six of the Trump seats.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton would’ve won 14 of 28 seats. In 2018, both Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum also would’ve won 14 in their respective statewide races.

The Jacksonville-only district is more compact, and it reduces the Black voting-age population from 44 percent to 35 percent. Despite that, Black voters would still make up 65 percent of people who voted in Democratic primaries from 2016 to 2020 in the district, compared to 69 percent in the Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee version.

House Redistricting chairman Rep. Tom Leek acknowledged that the decline in the Black population was significant, but there isn’t a clear court precedent on what constitutes diminishment when Black voters are still able to elect their preferred candidates.

Florida’s Fair Districts standards require plans to maintain districts where Black or Hispanic voters are able to elect candidates of their choice. But the standards also require compact districts that honor geographic and political boundaries.

Either proposal could potentially be declared unconstitutional depending on how the court rules.

If a court were to rule that the Jacksonville-only district doesn’t diminish Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates, then drawing a less compact version, like the Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee version, might be unconstitutional.

If a court rules the Jacksonville-only district does reduce Black voters’ ability to elect, then that version might be unconstitutional.

DeSantis submitted his own congressional map proposal, using the St. Johns River as a dividing line so that one district contains Nassau, Duval and Clay counties, while the other contains Duval and St. Johns counties. Both districts would favor Republican candidates and likely block Black voters’ preferred candidates, who have been Democrats in every election in the past decade.

The House version, drawn by the chamber’s redistricting staff, instead uses the Duval County lines so that one district makes up the majority of the county and would remain mostly Democratic, while the other Jacksonville district would become more suburban, adding voters from Nassau, Clay and St. Johns counties.

Two Republicans voted against the proposal — Cord Byrd and Brad Drake — while only one Democrat, Anika Omphroy, voted for it.

Leek continued to resist calls to publish detailed racial analyses performed for the Florida House, saying that the analyses were done in case the Legislature is sued and some House Democrats have called for lawsuits.

He said the map can still change when it comes to the floor for a vote. The deadline for amendments is today at 3 p.m. The plan is scheduled for debate on the House floor Thursday and for a vote Friday.

Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican, said the new district was unconstitutional because it took race into account. Byrd oversaw the state legislative redistricting committee, which also took race into account for ability-to-elect seats. “There are times when race should be considered,” he said. “The north Florida congressional district does not warrant that.”

He wasn’t able to say why he believed it was appropriate to consider race in the state house districts but not in this seat, saying that would “get technical” and he didn’t have the maps in front of him.

Byrd told the Tributary he hasn’t spoken to Gov. Ron DeSantis but said he prefers DeSantis’ proposal.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson who currently represents the Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee district lambasted the proposal as “clearly unconstitutional”.

“The proposed Congressional District 5 divides minority communities of interest across North Florida, leaving all Black voters west of Jacksonville unrepresented,” he said in a statement. “Following the Civil War, newly freed African Americans remained in what is now the I-10 corridor where many of their descendants continue to reside.

Though the Jacksonville-only district remains mostly Democratic, Marco Rubio would’ve won it in 2016, and every statewide Republican would’ve won the seat in 2014. That’s due in part to the poor regional performance of Democrats in 2014 and Patrick Murphy, Rubio’s opponent, in 2016.

Every other statewide Democratic candidate would’ve won this version of the district in the last decade.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton would’ve won it by eight points. In 2018, Andrew Gillum would’ve won it by 14 points, and Bill Nelson would’ve won it by 11 points. In 2020, Joe Biden would’ve won it by 13 points

Democrats on the committee cited the losses by Democratic candidates, who Black voters overwhelmingly supported in those elections, to argue a Jacksonville-only district wouldn’t pass muster.

League of Women Voters President Cecile Scoon, who has previously lambasted the committee for not publishing its racial analyses and not drawing more districts that protect Black and Hispanic voters, struck a different tone last week, not criticizing or praising the plan but instead urging the committee to be cautious as it considered a Jacksonville-only district.

The new plan would also create a more competitive Republican-leaning District 2 that would more closely resemble a former version of the district that her husband, Alvin Peters, unsuccessfully ran for in 2012. That district was later represented by Democrat Gwen Graham for two years.

Lawson himself came within about five points of winning the old version of the district in 2012. All statewide Republicans would’ve won this version of District 2 since 2016, but they would’ve won it on average by less than 11 points.

The new House proposals also attempt to settle some of the differences between its and the Senate’s Orlando districts.

The Senate has argued that the 10th District in Orlando must protect Black voters’ ability to elect, and its version would see Black voters make up 49 percent of turnout in Democratic primaries since 2016.

The House has argued that Black voters in Orlando don’t qualify for protections, but redistricting staff said they attempted to draw a version closer to the Senate’s. This version would see Black voters make up 43 percent of Democratic primary turnout.

The House however drew a more Republican-friendly version of the 7th District, currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

After the House approves its map, the House and Senate must agree on a compromise proposal that the governor could sign, veto or allow to become law without his signature.

If the governor vetoes the map, the Legislature can’t override the veto with only Republican votes. Especially with some Republicans, including Byrd and Drake, opposing the plan, the Legislature will need Democratic votes in case DeSantis follows through on his threat.

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

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On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee will meet at City Hall to discuss potential amendments to its local redistricting plan today at 2 p.m.

The Florida House is scheduled to debate the congressional redistricting plan Thursday at 9 a.m. and then vote on it Friday at noon.

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Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville...