Two days after Florida’s Republican legislative leaders publicly announced that they would let Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) draw the state’s new congressional map — an unprecedented move in its own right — the governor released a map Wednesday afternoon that was wildly slanted in his own party’s favor.
In a state that’s leaned only slightly to the right in recent years, DeSantis’ map would likely give Republicans control of four new congressional districts and take three away from Democrats: A 20-8 split, up from a 16-11 split today. (The state gained a new congressional seat as a result of population growth as reflected in the 2020 census.)
The map is an exercise in raw political power by the governor, who proposed his own congressional maps months ago and then vetoed maps from the Republican-controlled legislature that were closer to the status quo, both unheard-of moves for a governor of the same party as legislative leaders. Early reports indicate the legislature is prepared to work with DeSantis’ map during a special session next week.
And though lawsuits will be filed against it, DeSantis’ map, if approved by the legislature, will likely be in use for one or even two congressional election cycles. And conservative courts could still preserve the map in Republicans’ favor.
That’s what the governor thinks, at least: In multiple memos in recent months, DeSantis’ top counsel has said Fifth Congressional District, which stretches along Florida’s border with Georgia, was unconstitutionally gerrymandered in Black voters’ favor.
The district, represented by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson (D) since 2017, was approved by the Florida Supreme Court after a legal challenge to the previous map.
DeSantis’ map not only redraws Lawson’s district, but also splits up Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city. The map also draws a whiter electorate for 10th Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Val Demings (D), and makes Rep. Charlie Crist’s (D) district more conservative.
One unnamed Republican source told NBC News last month: “All of the constitutional lawyers [DeSantis] speaks with, both in the Federalist Society and elsewhere, believe that both Fair Districts and the Voting Rights Act when it comes to racial gerrymandering are illegal.” The same source claimed that DeSantis has been in regular contact with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“Fair Districts” are two anti-gerrymandering amendments approved overwhelmingly by Florida voters in 2010, and which were promptly ignored by Republicans when drafting legislative maps. The subsequent legal battle took years, but was ultimately decided in redistricting reformers’ favor.
On Tuesday, after vowing to eliminate the district, DeSantis said that the original District Five — approved by Florida’s Supreme Court in 2015 — would have itself been subject to litigation.
“And if you look at what’s happened in the U.S. Supreme Court over the last four or five years, you know what will be the case,” he said.
Any court challenge will likely leave enough time for the maps to be used in the 2022 elections, at very least. In that sense, Florida Republicans have followed a similar path as their party-mates in Ohio, where a challenge to gerrymandered congressional maps has been delayed until after primary elections are held on the challenged maps.
“The choice they’ve made here is to delay,” Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, told The Orlando Sentinel.
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand an Alabama congressional map that a lower court said was unconstitutionally discriminatory against Black voters. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the case came too close to scheduled elections in Alabama to use a new map.
But it has ruled differently in other states: The Supreme Court ruled last month that Wisconsin’s highest court had to reconsider a map, drawn by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers (D), because the court record hadn’t established enough justification for an new majority-Black district.