Florida's DeSantis erases two districts that sent Black people to Congress

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) drew new congressional districts adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature that slash the population of Black voters in districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Al Lawson and Val Demings. (Official portraits.)

This story was updated on April 22, 2022 at 11 a.m. to correct several errors of fact.

In recent months, as state legislatures gerrymandered voters of color across the South, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) eliminated two heavily Black congressional districts. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature this week approved a voting map drawn by DeSantis that eliminates districts now represented by Reps. Val Demings and Al Lawson, both Black Democrats. The Senate approved the map earlier this week, and the state House adopted it in a party-line vote on Thursday after Black lawmakers temporarily halted proceedings with a sit-in protest.

The governor's map is the culmination of weeks of infighting between DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature. DeSantis vetoed a redistricting map drawn by lawmakers, leaving little time to draw new maps before filing begins next week for the Aug. 23 primary election.

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers passed a congressional map with bipartisan support that preserved the Black plurality population* in the 5th Congressional District now represented by Lawson. It also made the district more compact to address DeSantis' concerns about what he characterized as the "sprawling" district that's now in place. 

DeSantis had argued that the current district, which spans several counties in the South's Black Belt region, was itself racially gerrymandering. Echoing Republican politicians across the South, DeSantis argued that drawing so-called Voting Rights Act (VRA) districts — where voters of color are able to elect their candidates of choice — would require too much reliance on race in the redistricting process. He cited a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a racial gerrymandering case out of North Carolina, but that ruling only affirmed that North Carolina's VRA districts didn't require a Black majority because the previous districts had satisfied the VRA with a Black plurality. 

Lawmakers passed a map that preserved Florida's 5th while centering it around Jacksonville, making it more compact. Yet DeSantis still vetoed it. He maintained that lawmakers relied too much on race when drawing the district — but he also argued the district didn't include enough Black voters to satisfy the VRA. Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out the hypocrisy in an interview with The Guardian, asking, "Is it a Black district or is it not a Black district?" Li called DeSantis' map "a deeply racist move that targets Black political power."

Instead of overriding the veto, legislators backed down and agreed to take up DeSantis' districts. Lawson said the issue is not about him staying in office, but about "African Americans having the opportunity to vote for someone of their choice," as the VRA requires. Adding to the impression that DeSantis targeted Black voters in particular is the fact that while his map dismantled two of the four districts with a Black plurality, it preserved four districts with heavily Latino populations. In addition to gerrymandering Black voters, DeSantis' map will also net the GOP a few more seats than the legislature's initial districts.

The governor's map could be challenged under the fair districts amendment to the Florida Constitution that bars both partisan and racial gerrymandering. Similar things have happened in other states. In North Carolina, for example, the state Supreme Court recently struck down election districts for violating the state constitution, and the new congressional map preserves a VRA district in the northeastern corner of the state.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the legislature's districts for pro-Republican bias. But since then, DeSantis and other Republican governors have pushed the court to the right. In 2019, DeSantis' nominees were personally interviewed by Leonard Leo when he was leader of the Federalist Society, which promotes a right-wing interpretation of the constitution and whose members occupy powerful seats on appellate courts throughout the country. Leo has since launched a group that seeks to restrict voting

Like voting maps in other Southern states, DeSantis' map could be has been challenged by civil rights groups, who are in federal court asking judges to draw a new one on the grounds that the one passed by the legislature violates the 14th Amendment, VRA, and the fair districts amendment.** Democratic voting rights lawyer Marc Elias — who's filed dozens of voting rights and redistricting cases around the country in the past year — has also said he will sue over DeSantis' map.

Voting rights advocates have filed lawsuits challenging new districts throughout the Deep South, where appellate courts are dominated by Republican appointees. In February, a federal judge in Arkansas ruled that only the federal government can sue states for racial gerrymandering under the VRA. Texas is making a similar argument in a lawsuit alleging that its new districts discriminate against Latino voters — and the state even claims that the VRA doesn't apply to redistricting at all. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida as well as Alabama and Georgia, will soon review a lower court's decision striking down most parts*** of a suppressive Florida voting bill and requiring the state to "preclear" voting laws with the court for the next 10 years. 

Any ruling on DeSantis' new congressional districts will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though it struck down maps in three Southern states that "packed" Black voters in the past decade, the court has recently sided with Republicans in racial gerrymandering cases through so-called "shadow docket" rulings — emergency actions taken by the court that don't go through the full decision-making process.

In February, the justices overturned a lower court's decision blocking Alabama's new congressional districts under the VRA and re-instituted districts that will slash Black representation for this year's election. Chief Justice John Roberts — who authored the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling out of Alabama that sharply limited the VRA — dissented, arguing the lower court's ruling seemed correct. 

The Florida's legislature's proposed 5th District had a white majority, not a Black plurality. 

** Florida's new election districts haven't yet been challenged in court. 

*** Parts of a Florida voter suppression law, not most of it, were struck down.