Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday received and quickly vetoed new congressional boundaries approved by the Republican-controlled legislature, setting up a showdown with his own party over how to proceed with a new map for the state.
DeSantis said he will call lawmakers back to Tallahassee next month for a special session to take another stab at redrawing district lines in a way that satisfies his demands.
The two sides have been at odds for months as DeSantis has pressed his party’s legislative leaders to pass an aggressive reapportionment of the state’s 28 congressional districts that would eliminate two districts where Black residents are a plurality. Republicans earlier this month defied DeSantis — who is used to getting his way — and passed its own map that maintains the same number of Black districts.
Lawmakers could override the governor’s veto or punt to the courts and hope their map prevails. But a key Republican state senator previously that neither of those outcomes are likely, and he now expects the legislature to draw a map that can win the governor’s signature.
“We would have to try again to pass a map that the governor would be interested in signing,” Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the Republican point person on redistricting in the Senate. “The maps that would have the best chance of standing up to legal challenge are maps that are passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor.”
Florida is one of just five states without a final map, creating widespread uncertainty for midterm candidates who don’t yet know the boundaries of the districts they may be running in. Lawmakers must also account for a new congressional seat after the most recent decennial census. The filing deadline for candidates in Florida is June 17 and the primary election is in August.
Siding with the governor is a path that may lead lawakers to a courtroom — a scenario Republican lawmakers were trying to avoid when they started the once-a-decade redistricting process. The state House and Senate initially considered maps that adhered more closely to the existing district lines in hopes of fending off a legal challenge.
DeSantis has recently acknowledged that he wouldn’t mind if the redistricting fight leads to a legal battle. His own map proposal eliminated two House districts — the 5th and the 10th — represented by Black Democrats. It was critiqued by opponents as a clear violation of a state constitutional amendment known as Fair Districts, which requires lawmakers to give minority communities an opportunity to “elect representatives of their choice.”
DeSantis’ endgame is for a court to deal a blow to the Fair Districts amendment, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last decade to reduce political influence in the map-drawing process. On Tuesday, DeSantis said he believes the way Florida courts interpreted the Fair District amendment last decade could be a violation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.
“Our goal in all of this is to have a constitutional map,” DeSantis said Tuesday.
The battle has also earned DeSantis, a potential contender for the White House in 2024, considerable praise from Republicans who want to see the state GOP use their power to push a more partisan map.
Prior to the veto on Tuesday, two lawsuits had already been filed asking courts in Florida to set new US House districts, citing DeSantis’ veto threat as evidence of an impasse.
Still, lawmakers have an incentive to quickly reach a conclusion to the redistricting fight: State law prohibits lawmakers from fundraising for their campaigns while in Tallahassee for a legislative session, a nuisance that would be especially felt during an election year.
If Republicans move toward DeSantis’ demands, Democrats will surely frame it as lawmakers caving to DeSantis.
“At that point, I don’t understand why anyone in the majority conference would want to be a legislator. You’re just a cog in the wheel labeled ‘Governor DeSantis,'” said House Minority Leader Evan Jenne. “If you’re just going to abdicate all your responsibilities to someone who is not your constituent, why are you here?”
Eyes on Florida
With the US House closely divided, both parties are closely watching the developments in Florida. Despite early predictions that Republican-controlled state houses across the country could draw their party into the House majority, national Democrats have been largely pleased with how they have fared in redistricting.
Republicans in many states had already pressed their redistricting advantage last decade when a tea party wave installed GOP leaders in states where governments were previously divided or run by Democrats. There weren’t many opportunities to gain more seats without making incumbents more vulnerable, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor and redistricting researcher at the University of Florida.
That wasn’t the case in Florida, where a court installed a map drawn by grassroots reformers in 2015 after years of legal challenges and failures by the GOP legislature to pass a map.
“It’s one of the few places in the country where Republicans can gain seats with even a modest gerrymander,” McDonald said. “Suddenly Florida has become really important in this chess board.”
This year, Florida’s redistricting process was chugging along without drama when DeSantis unexpectedly unveiled his own map in January, an unprecedented step for a Florida executive. That proposal from DeSantis — who is up for reelection this fall — is a much more partisan map, one that could give Republicans the advantage in at least 18 of the 28 districts in the state, and as many as 20. Florida Republicans currently hold 16 seats in the US House to 11 for the Democrats.
The DeSantis map would break up the 5th Congressional District, one of four districts in the state where Black voters are a plurality. It is currently represented by Lawson, who is Black.
DeSantis has said he believes the district, which spans the state’s northern border with Georgia to connect Black communities in Tallahassee and Jacksonville, is unconstitutional. His office has pointed to a 2017 US Supreme Court ruling of a North Carolina congressional seat in which the court said it was unconstitutional in most instances to racially gerrymander a district. DeSantis on Tuesday said the district is an example of a “pure racial gerrymander” intended to get a Democrat elected.
Lawson in a statement on Tuesday said DeSantis has “made it clear that his ultimate objective was to cut the number of African Americans and Hispanic Americans serving in Congress” and he took issue with the governor’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
“The fact that DeSantis justifies his goal to create racial disparities in congressional representation by citing the constitutional amendment created following the Civil War for the very purpose of remedying those same disparities is absurd and will be soundly rejected by any credible judge,” Lawson said.
National Republicans have eyed Lawson’s seat as a vehicle for future challenges ever since it was implemented by the court.
“A lot of people on my side of the aisle believe the Florida Supreme Court imposed a racial gerrymander on the state of Florida and it just hasn’t been challenged,” said Adam Kincaid, president and executive director for the National Republican Redistricting PAC.
The organization, created to coordinate and influence GOP redistricting efforts across the country, has not been involved in Florida’s redistricting debate.
“What you have with the existing Florida 5 is in our view improperly imposed and it was drawn to create a Democratic seat in north Florida,” Kincaid said.
For months, state Republican lawmakers rejected similar arguments from DeSantis. They operated under the assumption that a district created by the court would pass constitutional muster and that the state’s Fair District amendment prohibits lawmakers from eliminating a seat that gives Black voters a voice in Congress. In addition to representing Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Lawson’s district also includes Gadsden County, the only Black-majority county in the state, as well as large African American populations in other counties along the Georgia border that once made up the Southern plantation Black Belt.
DeSantis’ map would also break up the 10th Congressional District, currently represented by US Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat from Orlando now running for US Senate.
Rodrigues, who was previously dismissive of DeSantis’ position, now says it warrants consideration. He also said recent US Supreme Court rulings regarding redistricting plans passed in other states may also play a factor. Still, he didn’t know how the state House and Senate would bridge the gap between their approved map and the one DeSantis wants. Already, they had made significant concessions to DeSantis, passing a map that shifts District 5 east to create a new Black access district around Jacksonville.
“The governor has a legitimate point,” Rodrigues said. “Let’s see if there’s a way the map can be drawn to address it.”