TALLAHASSEE | As Florida’s federal redistricting trial continued into its second day, focus shifted to expert testimony that argued Gov. Ron DeSantis’ intervention tainted the Legislature’s mapmaking process.
The case, being heard by a three-judge panel, continued to probe whether DeSantis intentionally discriminated against Black voters. The trial comes weeks after a state judge struck down North Florida’s congressional districts, with DeSantis’ lawyers openly admitting the governor had violated the Florida Constitution.
On the first day of the federal trial, DeSantis’ acting chief of staff Alex Kelly had argued that racial discrimination in Florida occurred “a long time ago,” but a day later, J. Morgan Kousser, a historian and expert in U.S. voting rights and racial discrimination, said Kelly was mistaken.
Discrimination continues in Florida, Kousser stated emphatically. “The focus on race and racial discrimination [when the Legislature was redistricting] makes clear the extent to which it is well and widely recognized that discrimination persists.”
Kousser pointed to voting rights cases that have continued unabated, like the one last year that successfully proved the Jacksonville City Council had racially gerrymandered its own districts. He also walked through the governor’s education policies, restricting books about racial discrimination and allowing curriculum from Prager University Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit that Kousser said teaches inaccurate history.
He then walked through the history of redistricting this cycle, saying the governor violated standard practice, one of the factors the judges will consider when determining if the state intended to discriminate.
First, the Legislature appeared to go to great lengths to protect Black voting rights in its map proposals. The House and Senate rebuffed DeSantis’ early attempts to intervene, rejecting his first proposed map, dismissing expert testimony his office arranged, and passing their own congressional plans even after the governor promised to veto them.
DeSantis argued at the time that protecting Black voters in North Florida, either with a district that stretched from Jacksonville to Tallahassee or with a Jacksonville-only district, violated the U.S. Constitution because lawmakers took race into account. He acknowledged that past Florida Supreme Court precedent had created such a district and seemed to require its continuation. He asked the state’s highest court to provide an advisory opinion but was rebuffed.
Then the Legislature’s resolve changed after the veto.
The governor’s explanation, Kousser said, didn’t add up. He pointed to the lack of objections to a white-majority congressional district in place in the 2000s that also stretched from Northeast Florida to Tallahassee. Objecting to a district that sought to empower Black voters while remaining silent about a similarly shaped district that united white voters was evidence, Kousser said, of racial discrimination.
If the governor had never gotten involved, Kousser said, “there is every reason to believe … the Legislature would’ve adopted maps that would have continued to produce districts in which Black voters would have been able to elect candidates of their choice.”
But Kousser struggled when one of the state’s lawyers, Mohammad Jazil, questioned him about an expert report he produced, which identified historic and current “Black-access districts” as districts where a Black candidate had been elected or the Black voting-age population was at least 30 percent.
The new 4th Congressional District drawn by DeSantis is solidly Republican but almost 32 percent of the voting-age population is Black.
Kousser’s definition contradicts how courts have defined such districts, which usually describe districts where Black voters can elect their preferred candidates, regardless of the candidates’ race or specific Black population cutoffs.
The expert told the judges that normally political scientists would look at more than just demographics to determine if Black voters could elect their preferred candidates, but 30 percent “was just a rough estimate of what districts had elected Blacks in the past.”
If that’s the rough estimate, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan asked Kousser, “wouldn’t going below a 30% BVAP [Black voting-age population] be an important first step” if the governor intended to discriminate against Black voters in North Florida?
Kousser said he suspected the governor’s office would’ve done a deeper analysis to determine if the 4th Congressional District would have allowed Black voters to elect their preferred candidates.
The Legislature’s own leadership, however, specifically said the governor’s map would not allow Black voters to elect any of their preferred candidates in North Florida.
Before the Legislature approved the governor’s map, then-Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville) asked, “Will either District 4 or 5 perform for Black candidates of choice?”
“No,” replied House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek.
That, Kousser said, showed the Legislature knew the new districts would reduce Black voting power.
At another point, Kousser also acknowledged that the two Black Democrats who have represented North Florida — former U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville) and Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee) — both opposed the Fair Districts Amendment that provided voting rights protections in the state Constitution.
Those protections barred the state from reducing Black voting power and formed the basis for the separate state court decision that the governor is appealing.
Contact Andrew Pantazi of The Tributary at Andrew.Pantazi@jaxtrib.org and @APantazi. This story is published in partnership with The Tributary, a Florida-based nonprofit newsroom.