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Politics & Government

Voting rights advocates say Gov. DeSantis' congressional map tied to political ambitions

 Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposed congressional map would carve up Congressional District 5 (Rep. Al Lawson's district) into four districts across north Florida.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposed congressional map would carve up Congressional District 5 (Rep. Al Lawson's district) into four districts across north Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has done something not many governors have done in the electoral remapping process: He’s submitted his own congressional district map.

His proposed map would give Republicans more power than the state Senate’s congressional map proposal. And it would take away two of the state’s African-American voting districts. Voting rights advocates say they think the governor’s unusual step is tied to his own political ambitions.

“Ron DeSantis cares about Ron DeSantis,” said Matthew Isbell, a redistricting data analyst and Democratic Party consultant. “He doesn’t care who wins a congressional seat anywhere in this state. He wants to get reelected, and he wants to become president.”

DeSantis is one of only two governors who have directly contributed to the redistricting process with a map of their own. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor also submitted a map to the Republican-controlled legislature in that state. In Florida, the GOP controls the legislative and executive branches. DeSantis is widely considered a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2024, which likely factored into his decision to submit a map, Isbell said.

“I really don’t think he cares that much about which map becomes law. I think he just wants to be seen as fighting for the conservative base,” he said.

DeSantis’ proposal would carve up Rep. Al Lawson’s north Florida district into four districts. Right now, the state’s fifth congressional district stretches across eight counties and picks up Black voters who live in Tallahassee and in Jacksonville.

“Those people who might become the representatives of these redrawn districts will not — one — have a relationship with these communities and — two — we won't have access to that person in order to try to get the things that's needed," said Tallahassee NAACP President Mutaqee Akbar.

DeSantis submitted the map on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Akbar says he thinks the timing was intentional.

“One of the things that the King family actually asked of the community was not to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but to advocate for equal voting rights,” Akbar said. “And on the eve of Martin Luther King, to actually take away the vote, take away a district that's specific to black and brown communities, to do all of that is… it's no coincidence.”

The governor’s plan would also eliminate Rep. Val Demings’ Orlando district — another district with a large Black voting population. Jasmine Burney Clark lives in Demings’ district. She’s also the founder of Equal Ground, a progressive group working to mobilize Black voters.

“What you don't want, obviously, is taxation without representation,” Clark said. “To split her district would be monumental for Black voters in the Central Florida area who have delivered quite a number of victories for people of color running for office.”

The governor’s office issued a statement last week claiming the congressional map draft actually increases minority districts because it would add two Hispanic districts. That assessment is based on U.S. Census data that shows population growth among Latinos. Matthew Isbell — a redistricting data analyst — has found that there aren’t enough Hispanic voters in those districts for them to have a majority in the preferred party's primary election.

“There’s large refugee populations. There’s people here who have come after their families get established. We have a lot of people who have green cards who are on their way to citizenship, but they're not citizens yet, and therefore they cannot cast ballots,” Isbell said. "When we measure whether or not a district is a minority-performing district. We're not just looking at the census, we're looking at actual voting behavior to see if the district is going to allow a minority community to elect a candidate of their choice.”

State and federal requirements prohibit lawmakers from diluting minority voting power in majority-minority districts.

“You can't get rid of an African-American district in North Florida, and say, ‘Oh, but we created another Hispanic district in South Florida, you know, three-hundred miles away,’ and say, ‘Oh, see, it balances out.’ It's not about reaching some magic number of non-white districts, which is the way they seem to treat it.”

The Florida legislature is considering its own plans for the state’s congressional districts. None of their maps wipe out north Florida’s Black voting district. And the state Senate’s plan, which passed last week, keeps Rep. Val Demings district in tact. The state House still hasn’t passed its congressional plan, which is different than the Senate’s map.

“The House should take the same tack that the Senate took and not even bother taking any time considering it or anytime opining on it because it’s not his place,” said House Minority Policy Chair Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach). “We have the constitutional responsibility, not he, to draw these maps.”

DeSantis has the power to veto any plan that the legislature passes. If lawmakers can’t reach an agreement, the state Supreme Court will decide how the lines are drawn.

In a statement from Ryan Newman, the general counsel for the governor’s office, he indicated that a veto is on the table because of the governor’s “legal concerns” with the legislature’s proposed congressional districts.

“We have submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements and addresses our legal concerns, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations,” Newman explained. “Because the governor must approve any congressional map passed by the legislature, we wanted to provide our proposal as soon as possible.”

Regardless of which map prevails, any plan that dilutes Black voting power in the state is expected to draw legal challenges. Co-Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) explained DeSantis’ proposed plan would put the legislature “in hot water” if it were to get challenged in court.

“If I were the Senate, I would not want to go into court advocating for or having passed Governor DeSantis’ proposed map that decreases Black seats from four to two.”

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