Amid DeSantis push, Florida House releases redistricting map — and a backup plan

The backup map appears to be a signal that lawmakers think DeSantis’ proposal could be invalidated in court.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando on Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando on Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 25, 2022|Updated Feb. 26, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Under pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis to dismantle a North Florida congressional district designed to elect a Black representative to Congress, the Florida House late Thursday released a map that does much of what the governor wants but also added a backup plan.

In a signal that it considers the governor’s proposal may be vulnerable to being invalidated by a state or federal court, the House released a second map that restores the North Florida district as the court approved it in the 2010 redistricting cycle and, in the text of the accompanying bill, it says that if the court invalidates the first map, the second map will take effect in law.

“If a court determines that the district ... is invalid ... it shall stand repealed” and the second map “shall take effect immediately” after the court’s review, the bill states.

House leaders said last week that they have questions about the constitutionality of the governor’s approach to minority access seats in North Florida, and the added language is an attempt to avoid having the court draw a map if it rejects their primary map. Because Florida gains a congressional district this year, going from 27 to 28, it must have a new congressional map by the time qualifying for candidates begins in June.

The House Redistricting Committee approved the plan Friday on a vote of 15-9. Rep. Anika Omphroy of Lauderdale Lakes was the only Democrat to vote in favor. Republican Reps. Cord Byrd of Neptune Beach and Brad Drake of Eucheeanna voted against the plan.

If approved by the full House, the maps will have to be approved by the Senate, which has passed a map that rejected the governor’s redistricting proposal and left the North Florida congressional district in place.

Under map C8017, labeled by the House as “primary,” a Duval County district comprised of 35 percent Black voters, and 65 percent in a primary, is drawn in Jacksonville to replace the current district held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat from Tallahassee.

The second map, C8015, is labeled “secondary” by the House and changes only six districts, none of them in South Florida.

Both maps improve the possibility of electing a Black representative in Central Florida, where Congressional District 10 has currently elected U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, and create a district with 29 percent Black voters in the Orlando area.

Voting advocacy organizations this week had sent a letter to House leaders warning that the House map’s attempt to split Demings’ district, Congressional District 10, violated the Fair Districts provision of the Florida Constitution, which prohibits legislators from diminishing minority voting strength.

Republicans hold big congressional lead either way

The new House maps also give Republicans the partisan advantage DeSantis had sought with his proposed maps by allowing for the likely election of 18 Republicans and 10 Democrats, giving Republicans two additional seats over the 16-11 configuration in Congress today.

And the bill, HB 7503, imposes a powerful new lever against opposition: It requires that any challenge under state law has to happen within 30 days of the bill’s passage, instead of the four-year statute of limitations that exists now.

House Redistricting Chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, defended the two-map option before the committee.

“We are faced with a unique situation, and this is the House’s attempt at continuing to protect the minority groups’ ability to elect a candidate of their choice, addressing compactness concerns and working to make sure we bring this process in for landing during the regular session,” he said. “And perhaps most importantly, we want to make sure all Floridians have clarity and finality going into our upcoming election cycle with where our map stands.”

Leek acknowledged receiving a letter from Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the ranking Democrat on the committee, who asked to obtain a copy of the analysis done by outside legal counsel hired by the House at taxpayer expense. That analysis would determine if there is racially polarized voting in certain districts that could ascertain whether voters could elect a minority candidate in a proposed map.

Raising his voice, Leek responded that Geller’s question had already been answered at a meeting last week, where Geller was not present.

“Stop injecting the partisan nature into this process,” he told Geller.

Leek also rejected a repeated request by voting advocates and Democrats that the committee conduct what is called a “functional analysis” on every single district in the map” because, he said angrily, that could lead the committee to obtain information on partisan performance which could be perceived as a violation of the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution.

“What you’re asking us to do sets this committee and this process up for failure,” he said. He then accused Geller of suggesting he would sue the House over its maps.

Geller forcefully rejected that claim, “predicting there would be litigation is not the same as saying I would be the author of it,” he said. He argued that he was entitled to see the analysis done by the House’s legal counsel.

Constitutional or not?

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, foreshadowed the change in an interview with reporters on Thursday when he said they were working on some changes to the House map that passed out of the redistricting subcommittee last week.

He was asked if the goal was to get their map closer to the Senate’s, which leaves intact the North Florida Black congressional district that the court approved in the 2010 redistricting cycle. He said: “No, that’s not the goal.

“The goal is to have a legally compliant map that brings the stakeholders together,” he said. “I think they’re trying to incorporate the feedback from members on the committee things they heard and come up with a map that will release presumably this evening.”

The stakeholders include DeSantis, who has veto power over the congressional map. As the lead Republican in the state with aspirations for national office, DeSantis has been pushing for a more partisan map that could elect two more Republicans to Congress.

Related: DeSantis vows to veto Florida lawmakers' congressional map

DeSantis has said he would reject any map that kept the current configuration for Congressional District 5, the North Florida district that stretches from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, linking together Black communities from Florida’s antebellum South. It has elected Lawson from Tallahassee since 2016.

In a letter to the House on Friday, Sprowls acknowledged that the primary map diminishes access for some Black voters in North Florida to elect candidates of their choice.

“We believe this solution creates a singular exception to the diminishment standard,” Sprowls wrote. He added that the “secondary map is one the Legislature knows is legally compliant under current law and keeps the previously-proposed configuration of District 5.”

Notably, he did not say that the Legislature considers the first map legally compliant.

Geller said that the backup map was evidence “that even the proponents of that map have no confidence in it as being constitutionally compliant” and he agrees the proposal is “constitutionally deficient” because the Duval-only congressional district dilutes minority voting strength.

Will courts get involved?

Leek explained that it will be up to the court to decide if the primary map violates the Fair Districts standards or not but argued that the district could still elect a Black member to Congress.

“The ultimate question of diminishment is going to have to be one determined by a court,’’ he said. “But I can tell you looking at all of the factors this district still performs.”

Byrd, who chaired the House’s Legislative Redistricting Subcommittee, said he voted against both congressional maps because he does not believe they abide by recent court rulings.

“Just because the court approved the districts in 2015 when they were court approved, it does not mean today that they are constitutionally valid,” he said. He said he believes the maps both violate the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the subsequent case law that limits racial gerrymandering in redistricting plans.

Last week, the governor’s office paid for a conservative redistricting expert to appear before the House redistricting subcommittee. Robert Popper, a senior attorney with the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, attempted to persuade the Republican-controlled committee that the district would no longer be considered legal under his interpretation of federal voting rights law.

Related: DeSantis redistricting expert grilled by Florida GOP legislators

After Republicans on the panel vigorously questioned him, the committee rejected Popper’s arguments and moved ahead with its original map that leaves the North Florida congressional district in place.

“I want to assuage any doubt that may be in front of you today,’’ said Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island at the end of the meeting. “This is a legally sound map. It’s a constitutionally compliant map.”

DeSantis kept leaning in, legislators on the committee said, urging them to present a modified plan that appears closer to the way Popper had suggested.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, offered two amendments to remove or extend the 30-day limit on when a challenge to the map can be filed.

“We’re using procedure as a weapon to stave off substantive challenges and that is wrong,” she said. The committee rejected both amendments.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect configuration of Republicans and Democrats from Florida in Congress. The correct breakdown in the House is 16-11, in favor of Republicans.

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