TALLAHASSEE – When 80-year-old Sam Palmer was growing up in Gadsden County, few Black Floridians were eligible to vote — not in those segregation days.
Because of racial violence and restrictive voting laws, there were only seven Black voters in a county of almost 11,000 Black people. Palmer had just turned 18.
Now, as president of the NAACP in the state’s only majority Black county, Palmer fears he’s seeing a form of that history of disenfranchisement threatening to repeat itself.
“What I’m hearing out of Tallahassee is that we can pay taxes, but we won’t have representation,” Palmer said. “The governor wants to turn North Florida Republican red. And if he does, we’re going to be an outcast, again.”
Florida lawmakers are set to convene Tuesday at the Capitol to redraw boundaries for the state’s 28 congressional districts.
Instead, DeSantis has advanced plans with more districts likely to elect Republicans to Congress from Florida. But he does this by redrawing two of the four districts represented by Black Democrats, reducing their number of minority voters.
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The targeted districts include the seat held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, which contains Gadsden County, a mostly rural, formerly tobacco-growing region at the Georgia border. With a population of almost 44,000 people, it is 55% Black.
The other district threatened is in the Orlando area where U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat elected in 2016, is leaving to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
For a state that elected three Black members to Congress 30 years ago for only the first time since shortly after the Civil War, DeSantis’ approach is viewed by opponents as turning back the political clock.
“It’s about whether these voters get a chance to elect a representative of their choice, whether it’s me or somebody else,” said Lawson, a Democrat from Tallahassee, first elected in 2016. “The governor is doing this for political reasons, even Republicans are saying that. “
The Legislature refused to go along with the governor’s demands during the two-month session, when leaders in both the House and Senate relied on a state constitutional requirement and preserved Florida’s minority-heavy districts, four with large Black populations and four where Hispanic voters hold an edge.
The state’s Fair Districts amendments, approved by voters in 2010, bar line-drawing that for Black and Hispanic voters would “diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
Governor seeks legal conflict
DeSantis, though, argues that these Fair Districts standards conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal constitutional requirements.
Citing Lawson’s current district, which stretches from the Tallahassee area to Jacksonville, DeSantis said on Tuesday that he is intent, instead, on crafting a “race neutral” seat in North Florida.
DeSantis a day later released a proposed map for the special session that would help Republicans capture 20 of Florida’s 28 congressional districts and dramatically change the seats now held by Lawson and Demings.
Republicans currently hold 16 seats in Florida’s 27-member congressional delegation, with the state adding a seat this year because of population gains in the 2020 Census.
What is now Lawson’s district would be confined to Duval County, with its Black voting age population reduced to where it would be dominated by Republican voters and may not elect a Black lawmaker. The Orange County district served by Demings remains Democratic-leaning, but may not be poised to elect a Black candidate, under the DeSantis map.
Senate Redistricting Chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, was quick to get on board with what the governor recommended Wednesday.
“I have determined that the Governor’s map reflects standards the Senate can support,” Rodrigues said.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz lashed out at lawmakers for caving to DeSantis. He called it “appalling but not surprising,” that Republican legislative leaders wouldn’t try again to craft their own maps.
“Gov. DeSantis is hell-bent on eliminating congressional seats where Florida’s minority communities have the ability to elect representatives of their choice and he is imposing his own partisan political preferences on Florida’s congressional map,” Diaz said.
The governor’s latest pitch is similar to maps he proposed in January and February, which would’ve turned Lawson’s district Republican-leaning. His plans would make every Florida congressional district north of the Orlando and Tampa areas likely to elect Repulblicans.
His earlier maps created 18 and 20 seats likley to be won by a Republican.
DeSantis’ plans would help national Republican efforts aimed at regaining control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections, when the governor also will be on the ballot, seeking re-election.
Once-a-decade redistricting is a pivotal part of the battle for Congress this year, with only Florida, Missouri and New Hampshire not yet approving new maps. With its 28 seats, the outcome in Florida will prove significant for both Democrats and Republicans.
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Focus on Florida intensifies
The focus on Florida also intensified after Democrats managed to increase their expected numbers in New York, Oregon and Illinois, while Republicans appear to have bolstered their chance for adding seats from Texas and Georgia.
Florida’s legislative leaders say they don’t plan to present maps of their own for the special session. Instead, they’ll just respond to what the governor proposes.
While Republicans at this stage appear willing to endorse the redrawing of Black-leaning districts in favor of adding GOP seats, the effort is enflaming Black voters, Democrats and allied organizations.
They see the move as a historic marker, and not in a good way.
“It certainly has an impact on Black voters across the state to see this is yet again as another attack on our very existence,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground Action, a nonprofit which has launched a digital and letter-writing campaign aimed at state lawmakers, demanding they defend Florida minority representation in Congress.
“We went through a very rough legislative cycle this year and last year, and this is one additional knock on Black Floridians,” she added.
North Carolina ruling is key
The governor’s legal argument centers on a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case that found it unconstitutional to racially gerrymander a seat, except in narrow instances, which DeSantis says the Black-leaning Congressional District 5 district fails to meet.
That North Carolina ruling came two years after Florida’s congressional lines were created by the Florida Supreme Court, which had taken over the map-making in the last round of redistricting because of constitutional violations by Republican lawmakers drawing the plan.
DeSantis said that the two congressional maps endorsed this spring by Republican-led majorities in the state House and Senate violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Lawmakers had attempted placate the governor by recasting Lawson’s district into a Duval County-only seat, but one still with a significant Black population. Legislators actually produced two maps, a primary and secondary plan, that left the 5th District with its minority-heavy, Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville contours.
DeSantis said lawmakers were wrong on both.
“They forgot to make sure what they were doing complied with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” DeSantis said when he vetoed the Legislature’s plan.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, was among three post-Civil War amendments that established civil and legal rights for Black Americans. But its equal protection provision has been used by justices to prohibit lawmakers from using race as the predominant motivation to place a significant number of minority voters within a particular district.
The standard usually comes into play when minorities are packed into a district, a common tactic that can “bleach” neighboring seats and make it easier for white lawmakers from either party retain power.
But the governor’s plan seems more designed to “crack” Black voters, eroding their influence by scattering them across districts more likely to elect white Republicans, opponents said.
“If they do what DeSantis wants, our only hope may be the courts,” said Brenda Holt, a Gadsden County commissioner who has campaigned for Lawson in past elections.
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DeSantis acknowledges that whatever map he signs, a court challenge lies ahead.
But the governor’s argument could gain traction in a state Supreme Court where he has named three of the seven justices and a U.S. Supreme Court now with a conservative, 6-3 majority.
Court challenge certain
“Obviously, that will be litigated,” DeSantis said. “But I can tell you, the original district would have absolutely been litigated. And if you look at what’s happened in the U.S. Supreme Court over the last four or five years, you know, that would be the case.”
While Florida lawmakers wouldn’t fully endorse the governor’s dismantling of a Black-oriented North Florida district during the legislative session, DeSantis enlisted support for his legal argument from Robert Popper, who is with the conservative activist foundation Judicial Watch.
“In federal law, the district’s in trouble,” said Popper, famous for having created a mathematical standard bearing his name that is used to gauge district compactness.
Popper told a House committee that the Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee boundaries fail to meet the “narrowly tailored,” goal for districts that courts now demand.
But when asked whether the state had a role in protecting minority representation from being diminished, Popper responded, “it can be, if it’s accomplished with a narrowly tailored remedy.”
Still, even when lawmakers turned the Lawson district into Duval-only, it failed to satisfy the governor. Critics say it’s because it was still positioned to elect a Black Democrat.
For Black voters across North Florida and in the Orlando area, reducing their ability to elect a member of Congress they choose is viewed as erasing gains that seem fresh against Florida’s checkered racial history.
When Lawson was elected to the state House in 1982, he became the first Black member of the Legislature in modern times coming from either the Panhandle or Big Bend regions. In Congress, the North Florida counties he represents were home to pre-Civil War plantations and later endured decades of Black voter suppression.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress in Gadsden, compared to yesteryear,” said Palmer, the NAACP president. “But now we’re dealing with something that’s all about politics, and about Republicans trying to increase their clout in Washington.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport