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DeSantis says he wants ‘race-neutral’ map of congressional districts

The governor’s comments Tuesday come as the fate of redistricting heads next week into a special session.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen Tuesday at a bill-signing ceremony in Miami, says his proposed congressional redistricting map will “have North Florida drawn in a race-neutral manner.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen Tuesday at a bill-signing ceremony in Miami, says his proposed congressional redistricting map will “have North Florida drawn in a race-neutral manner.” [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Apr. 12|Updated Apr. 13

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis confirmed Tuesday that the congressional redistricting map he is proposing will dismantle a congressional district designed to help Black voters living in the former plantation territories of North Florida.

“I think that what they’ll produce will be something that will be acceptable to folks and obviously we’d get my signature for proposing it,” he said at a bill-signing news conference in Miami. “It will, though, have North Florida drawn in a race-neutral manner.”

DeSantis has called legislators back into a special session on redistricting next week to redraw Florida congressional districts. On Monday, House and Senate leaders announced that, after successfully passing a legislative map that the court has approved, they will leave the map-drawing work on the congressional plan to the governor.

Related: Florida Legislature won't draft new redistricting map, deferring to DeSantis

DeSantis cited Cooper v. Harris, a 2017 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the North Carolina General Assembly engaged in “unconstitutional racial gerrymanders” by relying on race too heavily when it drew two congressional districts following the 2010 Census.

DeSantis said the current Congressional District 5, which stretches across North Florida from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, linking urban and rural Black voters in a region that was home to the slave plantations of the 1800s, “divvies up people based on the color of their skin.”

“That is wrong,” he said. “That is not the way we’ve governed in the State of Florida. … There has never been a district of that length and that shape that has been justifiable.”

DeSantis argued that if legislators retained Congressional District 5, which is held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, the map will be challenged as unconstitutional, and if legislators dismantle the district, as he wants, the map will also face litigation.

“You’re gonna have litigation either way,” he said. “… But I think the odds are higher that a map that is race-neutral will be approved. And I think it’s more likely that one that did that kind of intentional drawing would be ruled to violate the 14th Amendment.”

Governor, Legislature at odds over this map

The governor’s comments were the most explicit yet as tensions over the fate of redistricting have been festering for months. In January, the Republican governor broke with tradition and proposed his own congressional redistricting map that gave Republicans a 20-8 advantage over Democrats. It also contradicted the legal approach embraced by House and Senate Republican leaders, which preserved the four Black congressional districts approved by the courts in 2015.

By contrast, DeSantis’ proposal eliminated the North Florida Black congressional district, weakened a Black district in Orlando, and left the state with just two districts that would reliably elect Black candidates to office.

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Legislators attempted to appease the governor by passing a map that created a Jacksonville-centric district in North Florida while dismantling the current district that stretches across the top of the state. But DeSantis vetoed the congressional redistricting plan and argued that the protections the map afforded Black voters in Jacksonville and Orlando were an “illegal gerrymander” under the 14th Amendment provisions of equal protection.

This week, legislators signaled they are prepared to let the governor have his way as long as he takes the lead. A memo released Monday by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said legislators would not propose their own congressional redraw, but instead would use whatever the governor proposes.

Meanwhile, voters and advocacy groups Common Cause Florida and FairDistricts Now have criticized the governor’s interpretation of the law and have asked a federal court to declare Florida’s congressional redistricting at impasse. The state must have its congressional map in place in time for candidates to qualify for congressional districts by the June 17 deadline.

Related: Another lawsuit asks courts to set Florida congressional map

A three-judge panel on Monday scheduled a trial to start May 12 in the federal lawsuit if the Legislature and governor don’t agree. The court also rejected a motion by Secretary of State Laurel Lee for a stay in the case. Both sides have proposed the names of redistricting experts whom the court could appoint as special masters to draw the maps.

Was legislative memo a surprise?

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, has said DeSantis’ approach to redistricting was “trampling on rights of minority voters and turning back the clock” in an effort to “enhance his standing with Florida and national voters.’’

DeSantis on Tuesday seemed surprised by the Sprowls and Simpson memo, indicating that he had expected his staff to be talking behind the scenes with legislative staff to come to a consensus on a plan that they would propose.

“I thought that my legal office had been working with the House and Senate to try to kind of have a compromise that everyone would agree on,” he said.

After legislators were caught a decade ago allowing political operatives to influence the redistricting process in violation of the Constitution, lawmakers established a strict protocol for restricting public input and limiting access to the redistricting process this time.

DeSantis was asked Tuesday if he will be preserving the document record to show “what your intent was or what the intent is in drawing these districts.” Instead of responding, the governor pivoted.

“The people that were involved will go and testify in front of the Legislature about the product that was created,” he said. “And so, you know, this is kind of my first foray, and I don’t really know how all this stuff works.”

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