TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday vetoed a bill on congressional redistricting maps and called Florida legislators back into a special session in April to draw a new plan, setting up an intraparty feud over the future of redistricting in Florida.
The session, which will be set for April 19-22, could expand to include other issues, such as reviving the data privacy law, enacting a bill to allow legal gun owners to carry handguns openly or concealed without a permit, and perhaps even addressing the state’s expanding property insurance crisis.
But the governor said the prospect of that expansion was only “a possibility” and he was not prepared to add it to the agenda.
“We just went through a legislative session where they failed to deliver on some of those priorities, and so what I will do is I will ask the legislative leaders: Is there something that you can get across the finish line, and I will encourage them to do that,” he said.
This is the starkest disagreement between the Republican governor and the Republican-led Legislature in DeSantis’ tenure. First, DeSantis broke with tradition and proposed his own congressional redistricting plan that favored more Republicans than a plan that had been developed by the Florida Senate.
For two months, the governor then tried and failed to get lawmakers to agree to his legal approach to redistricting, which argues that the protections afforded to Black voters in Jacksonville and Orlando were an “illegal gerrymander” because he says the courts have since determined that race should not take precedence to the 14th Amendment provisions of equal protection.
But, also for months, the legal teams advising the House and Senate told legislators that the legal landscape requires them to draw districts in Jacksonville and South Florida that give Black voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, although they agreed to dismantle a Black-majority district in Orlando.
The Legislature’s two-map strategy
In an attempt to appease the governor, legislators passed a two-map package. They were so uncertain about the governor’s legal analysis, however, that they sent him a backup map and, in the text of the accompanying bill, they wrote that if a court invalidates the first map, the second map will take effect in law.
The first map dismantled a sprawling North Florida congressional district designed to elect a Black representative to Congress and similar to the one state and federal courts upheld in 2015. Legislators replaced it with a Jacksonville-centric district that also could elect a Black candidate. The second map restores the North Florida Congressional District 5 as the court approved it in the 2010 redistricting cycle.
Central to the dispute is whether the state and federal constitutions protect minority voters against having the ability to elect candidates of their choice diminished with the new maps. The Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution prohibit legislators from diminishing minority voting strength, and it was patterned after the federal Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.
In his veto letter, DeSantis cited case law from 1992 and 1995 and said that the Legislature’s congressional map was unconstitutional “because it assigns voters primarily on the basis of race but is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”
However, DeSantis also argued that the first map didn’t go far enough to protect the ability of Black voters to elect their preferred candidates because the Legislature’s map reduces the Black voting-age population in the North Florida minority district by 11 percentage points — below that of the district in the existing map that he considers unconstitutional.
The second map, he argued, goes too far because it protects Black voters at the expense of white voters and “in doing so, it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Voting advocacy organizations have warned legislative leaders that their congressional maps violate the Fair Districts provisions and, in a letter to House members in February, House Speaker Chris 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.”
Disagreement over protecting minority districts
But in comments to reporters on Tuesday, DeSantis signaled that he believes minority districts must have at least 50 percent of their voters as minorities and any district with fewer than that cannot be diminished. By contrast, legislators have defended districts based on how they perform in elections and that includes some districts that will elect a minority candidate even though there are fewer than 50 percent minority voters in a district.
If legislators argue that a district with 30 percent minority voters “couldn’t be diminished, well, then I think then you run into where the redistricting amendments become problematic,” DeSantis said.
His veto message argued that the “sprawling, non-compact district that spans 200 miles and repeatedly violates traditional political boundaries to join minority communities from disparate geographic areas” violates the Constitution because it is “not narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling interest of protecting the voting rights of a minority community in a reasonably cohesive geographic area.”
DeSantis also told reporters that his strategy was not to bring forward maps that would invalidate the Fair Districts amendments.
“Our goal in this was just to have a constitutional map. We were not trying to necessarily plot a type of litigation strategy,” he said.
Ellen Freidin, chief executive officer of FairDistricts Now, a nonpartisan organization that worked to pass the 2010 constitutional amendment to impose new redistricting standards in Florida, criticized the governor’s interpretation of the law.
“Apparently, Gov. DeSantis believes that trampling on rights of minority voters and turning back the clock to ignore those rights will enhance his standing with Florida and national voters,’’ she said. “FairDistricts Now hopes the legislative leaders will not allow the governor to bully them into disregarding those hard-earned rights. We will do everything in our power to ensure that those rights are protected and are enforced.”
Meanwhile, time is getting short for candidates trying to decide in which districts to run in November. Congressional candidates must qualify for election between June 13 and 17 and because Florida’s population growth allows it to add another congressional district, the maps must be completed by those dates.
If legislators don’t agree to the governor’s approach, he could veto the map again and then lawmakers could declare an impasse and ask a state court to draw the map. Since 2012, Florida courts have become increasingly conservative, stocked with judicial candidates chosen by former Gov. Rick Scott and now DeSantis.
Common Cause and FairDistricts Now have already asked a federal judge to draft a congressional map for Florida. And a group of Florida voters asked a Tallahassee judge to preemptively settle a potential impasse between the governor and Legislature over proposed congressional redistricting lines.
Legislative leaders comment
In a joint statement after the governor’s announcement, Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson noted that the congressional map and the two legislative maps they passed had “strong bipartisan support.” The legislative maps were declared valid by the Florida Supreme Court, but the congressional map requires the governor’s approval.
“Our goal is for Florida to have a new congressional map passed by the Legislature, signed by the governor, and upheld by the court if challenged,’’ they said in the statement. “Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to exhaust every effort in pursuit of a legislative solution.”
Members of the House Democratic Caucus said in a statement that they predicted the veto, and it is a signal that the governor is intent on diminishing Black voting rights in Florida.
“DeSantis has been force-feeding his desired map onto House and Senate leadership resulting in a ridiculous two-map legislative submission that cowardly attempted to appease his racist political agenda,” said Rep. Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton, the ranking Democrat on the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee.
This conflict has already played out once. In February, DeSantis’ office paid for a conservative redistricting expert to appear before the House redistricting subcommittee to make the governor’s legal case.
Robert Popper, a senior attorney with the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, attempted to persuade the Republican-controlled committee that North Florida Congressional District 5, as drawn by legislators to follow the district approved in the last redistricting cycle, would no longer be considered legal under his interpretation of federal voting rights law.
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 5 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 February 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.
During the House debate on the congressional redistricting bill, several Republicans were called to the governor’s office, where they were urged to vote against the House plan, Skidmore said.
“There was a lot of pressure. There were threats of primarying (candidates mounted against them),” she said. “They were scared. They were worried.’’