NOW THAT DESANTIS PROMISES TO VETO FLORIDA’S CONGRESSIONAL MAPS, WHAT COMES NEXT?


By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary


On Friday, the Florida House and Senate approved a congressional redistricting plan for the next decade, but that approval does nothing to offer more certainty to voters as legislators await Gov. Ron DeSantis’ promised veto.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls wouldn’t say Friday if they would schedule a special session to override the governor’s anticipated veto.

Even if they do schedule such a session, neither chamber appears able to override a veto, as the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers have joined Democrats to torpedo the plan.

If the Legislature can’t override a veto, courts may need to force a new map to ensure the districts have equal population and that the state draws its new 28th Congressional District.

CHANGING JACKSONVILLE’S DISTRICT

The most significant and most controversial change in the approved plan was Jacksonville’s 5th Congressional District. The Legislature drew two versions of the district. The primary version creates a Duval-only district; the secondary version, which will kick in if courts strike down the first version, maintains the current Jacksonville-to-Gadsden County shape.

The House amended its plans after the governor intervened by proposing his own version and initially hinting at a veto. DeSantis even sent an expert witness to Tallahassee to testify against an earlier version of the map for not being compact enough.

In response, the House drew the more compact Duval-only district that creates more competitive districts in North Florida while attempting to sustain a strongly Democratic Jacksonville seat where Black voters will dominate the primary.

Yet Democrats said that plan didn’t do enough to protect Black voters and that it catered to DeSantis. DeSantis, whose proposal would’ve made two white-majority Republican districts in Northeast Florida, ramped up his opposition, guaranteeing a veto.

Republican Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., along with Republican Reps. Mike Beltran, Cord Byrd, Brad Drake, Jason Fischer, Tommy Gregory, Blaise Ingoglia and Anthony Sabatini voted against the plan.

Last decade, courts required the Legislature to draw the district from Jacksonville to Gadsden, creating a white-plurality district where Black voters could elect their preferred candidates.

While the Black voting-age population shrinks in the Duval-only district from 45 percent to 35 percent, the Black share of voters in the Democratic primaries remains about the same.

House and Senate Democrats said they were concerned because one-third of the time — every statewide Democrat in 2014 plus failed Senate candidate Patrick Murphy in 2016 — the Black-preferred candidate would’ve lost the seat. In every other election since 2012, the district would’ve voted for Democrats, whom Black voters preferred in those elections.

Florida’s Fair Districts standards bar the Legislature from diminishing minority voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates. It’s unclear if courts would consider a district that almost always would’ve elected Black voters’ preferred candidates should be considered the same as one that always elected Black voters’ preferred candidates, as the Jacksonville-to-Gadsden version would’ve done.

“The governor got his way,” said Democratic Rep. Kelly Skidmore. “You don’t let the governor dictate what we do in this chamber.”

Yet DeSantis and his conservative allies in the Legislature argued both versions are illegal because they make race too predominant of a factor in drawing the districts.

“We shouldn’t take those sorts of things into account. We should just draw compact maps,” said Republican Rep. Mike Beltran.

“He asked for certain things,” Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy said, referring to DeSantis’ initial complaint the districts weren’t compact enough. “They tried to comply. He’s still not satisfied. What’s clear is he wants to remove Black districts.” 

The Florida Legislature’s Republican leadership refused to bend to DeSantis’ will, insisting Black voters in Jacksonville needed a district that protected their ability to elect preferred candidates.

Both the Duval-only and the Jacksonville-to-Gadsden versions would do so, the House and Senate redistricting committee chairmen said.

House Chair Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, conceded the decline in Black voting-age population could be significant, which was why the Legislature included a backstop plan. But he assured legislators the district still nominated and elected the Black-preferred candidates.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district by eight percentage points. In 2018, Andrew Gillum won the district by 14 points. In 2020, Joe Biden won it by 13 points.

The Fair Districts standards also require compact districts, which means the constitutionality of either district could be mutually exclusive.

If a court rules a Duval-only version of the 5th District would still protect Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates, then a court might rule that a Jacksonville-to-Gadsden version is unconstitutional for not being compact enough.

If a court rules a Duval-only version doesn’t protect Black voters’ ability to elect, then that version might be ruled unconstitutional.

NEXT STEPS

Now that the redistricting plan has passed, the Legislature must present the bill to Gov. DeSantis. Once it does so, DeSantis will have up to 15 days to sign or veto the bill.

After he vetoes the bill, there’s no set deadline for the Legislature to attempt to override the veto. The deadline to qualify for this August’s primaries is June 17.

Even though Democrats united against the map — only Jacksonville Sen. Audrey Gibson voted for the new map — some may change their vote to override a veto.

Democratic Sen. Lori Berman, for example, said she opposed the map, but if DeSantis follows through on his veto threat, she said she’d vote to override.

If the Legislature doesn’t set a special session or fails to override the veto, someone is likely to sue the state.

The active congressional districts remain the same ones that were in place for much of the last decade, and those districts violate the concept of one-person, one-vote because some have too many people and some have too few.

There’s also an extra district that needs to be drawn, or else it would need to be elected by a statewide vote.

Whoever files suit could do so in state or federal court. The court would likely order some form of a remedy. The court could implement its own plan, adopt the Legislature’s or try to get the Legislature and governor to work out a compromise.

In the meantime, potential candidates for office — just like voters — will remain in limbo.

AN OPEN RACE FOR JACKSONVILLE

If the Jacksonville-only version of the 5th Congressional District becomes law, it creates a new opportunity for local Democrats to run for a seat that former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown held for decades until her federal indictment in 2016.

Since then, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, has held the seat.

Already, some longtime politicos have expressed interest in the seat, including former Sen. Tony Hill and City Councilman Reggie Gaffney, along with Republican City Council President Sam Newby.

Notably, the only Democrat to vote for the congressional plan was Jacksonville Sen. Gibson. She was also one of only four Senate Democrats to initially vote against a bipartisan map drawn by that chamber.

Gibson wouldn’t say whether she planned to run for the seat.

Her rationale for voting for the plan didn’t make sense in text messages, and she didn’t answer phone calls. She claimed she voted for the Jacksonville-only map because “there is no reason to believe the court would not accept the map which is basically the map that was drawn by the court last cycle.”

In fact, Gibson voted against the map that was similar to the previous court-drawn one. Instead, she voted for the map that would significantly change the district.

NEW MAP CREATES COMPETITIVE SEATS

Although Republicans may fare better under the proposed map, the Jacksonville-only configuration could create an additional competitive seat in the Republican-leaning 2nd District near the Panhandle and Big Bend region.

The new 2nd District looks more like a previous version held by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.

Statewide, in 2016 and 2020, 13 of the 28 districts voted more Democratic than the state as a whole in the presidential elections. In 2018, 14 districts voted more Democratic than the state in the gubernatorial and senate elections.

While Democrats and progressive groups have focused criticism on the fact that Joe Biden would’ve won only 10 seats, that overlooks the fact that six of the seats won by Trump would’ve been within a 10-point margin of victory, making them potentially competitive.

Politics in Florida, particularly in Miami-Dade County, are unpredictable, and using any single election to forecast future elections is foolish.

For example, in Miami-Dade, Clinton won the current 27th Congressional District by about 20 points, and she won the 26th District by 16 points. They appeared to be solidly Democratic seats that year.

Then in 2020, Republicans won both districts.

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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Andrew Pantazi is the founding editor of 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 and his wife,...