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Florida House advances legislative redistricting maps

Discussion on the congressional map is awaiting a court ruling sought by Gov. DeSantis.
Members of the Florida House of Representatives attend a legislative session April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Members of the Florida House of Representatives attend a legislative session April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 10

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers moved closer to the finish line on redistricting on Wednesday as the Florida House gave final approval to two legislative maps that position Republicans to be able to control the Legislature for the next decade.

The House voted 77-39 along mostly party lines — with Democratic Rep. Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes voting in support — to approve Senate Joint Resolution 1, which includes the Senate map and the House map.

The Senate map gives Republicans a likely 23-17 advantage over Democrats in the 40-member chamber — a one-seat pickup for Democrats over the current map. The House map gives Democrats as many as seven additional seats in the 120-member House, potentially reducing the Republican majority to 71 from 79, and increasing the Democratic share to 49.

The Senate must take a final vote on the maps before they become law for the 2022 election cycle. But the once-a-decade process of redistricting rarely concludes with a legislative vote as the maps and their high-stakes implications for politics in Florida have been historically challenged in court.

DeSantis wants advisory opinion

This time, it is the governor who is first asking for the court’s help.

As the Legislature advanced its own maps protecting minority voting rights, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion about the legality of changing the configuration of a North Florida congressional district that has elected Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.

Related: DeSantis asks Florida court if Black congressman's district is constitutional

The request came in response to the Legislature’s reluctance to adopt a congressional redistricting map the governor’s staff submitted to the Legislature in mid-January. It gives Republicans in Congress an eight-seat advantage in Florida, two more seats than a map proposed by the state Senate and more aggressive than a draft map prepared by the House.

The most controversial elements of the plan, however, are that it slashes the number of Black congressional districts from four to two by dismantling the current Congressional District 5 held by Lawson, and altering Congressional District 10, which is held by Democrat Val Demings in the Orlando area. DeSantis’ staff has called Lawson’s congressional district “an illegal gerrymander.”

Both districts were approved by the court a decade ago. Since then, DeSantis has appointed three justices and the court majority is now considered to be more conservative.

The governor’s map includes five districts that appear to increase the number of Hispanic districts in Congress but may in fact reduce representation.

Senate and House Republicans so far have rejected the governor’s approach, arguing that they must adhere to the “benchmark” districts from the last redistricting cycle to avoid diminishing minority voting strength, as required by the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution.

Rather than revise its map, the Senate ignored the governor’s suggestions and passed its own map on a 31-4 bipartisan vote. The Senate’s congressional map leaves the GOP advantage in the Florida congressional delegation at 16, with Democrats in line to keep 12 seats, one more than the current map.

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Related: DeSantis redistricting map ignites intraparty discord

The House had scheduled a meeting on Friday to discuss its congressional map, but after the governor asked the Florida Supreme Court to intervene, it postponed the meeting awaiting a court ruling. The court has given parties until Monday to submit briefs.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the court opinion will be helpful for legislators to have “more clarity ... on that point prior to addressing the congressional map. It means that we are going to have a legally compliant map which is our goal from the very beginning.”

Voting Rights Act challenge

Democrats, however, say the governor is attempting to set up a legal challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act, similar to the Texas Legislature and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

“After 100 years of Jim Crow, we’ve had voting rights legislation in this country going back now 60 years,” said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “But the governor’s actions,” he said, prompt him to wonder if he “might be setting up a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act itself — with the idea of getting a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

DeSantis has veto power over the congressional map, but the legislative maps become law without the governor’s signature.

Republicans commended their House map, emphasizing the fact that they created a redistricting website, floridaredistricting.gov, that included all the data they had access to. They noted that just like the current map, the new map contains 30 minority districts — 18 are Black districts 12 are Hispanic districts.

And they argued that they improved the “visual and mathematical compactness” of many of these minority districts, something the state’s Fair Districts guidelines encourage.

“The maps are not only constitutional and legally compliant ... And not only an improvement upon the benchmark maps that we started with, but were made better throughout the process based on member feedback and I’m proud of the process that we went through. I’m proud of the maps before us,” said Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers.

She noted that the House committee improved the original map by revising it to keep the city of Miami Gardens from being split into four districts by splitting it only in two.

Partisan divide over legislative maps

But Democrats outlined a series of objections.

For example, they said, the map capped, rather than expanded, minority voting strength by leaving the number of minority-access seats in the House at 30, despite the fact that Florida’s minority population grew substantially faster than non-Hispanic white population growth.

“While we won’t show retrogression in terms of fewer minority seats, at the same time, unfortunately, we won’t show progression — progress in terms of the participation of minority populations in this chamber,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

The maps “squandered an opportunity to bring divergent voices divergent experiences, divergent perspectives” to the Legislature, she said. “We looked at the 30 as the ceiling while it is actually the floor.”

They criticized the process, saying they were not involved in policy decisions to determine which regions of the state to protect and why to give district compactness a priority over minority protection. They said the public was kept at a distance and there was little transparency over the maps, which were drawn behind closed doors by staff.

“I stand here today, and I still don’t know who was in the room,’’ said Geller, the ranking Democrat on the redistricting committee.

Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, said that the partisan data obtained by House Republicans to draw their maps was not made available to Democrats, making it impossible for them to propose alternative maps that would have allowed them to maximize minority voting strength.

And several members noted that the House map did not create a district to give Haitian-Creole-speaking voters an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.

But House Redistricting Committee Chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, emphasized that, unlike other states, Florida’s redistricting process is constrained by new rules and court precedent imposed on it over the last decade.

He scolded Democrats for failing to sufficiently engage in the process and offer any alternative maps.

“If you can point to a line on that map or a district on that map and tell us what’s wrong with it, where have you been?” he said. “Not a single alternative map was submitted.”

Correction: Democratic Rep. Anika Omphroy voted in support of Senate Joint Resolution 1. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the vote was on party lines.

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