‘A racist move’: Florida’s DeSantis threatens Black voter power with electoral maps

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis is brazenly trying to curtail Black political power in his state as he redraws its congressional districts to significantly benefit Republicans.

The Florida legislature is meeting this week to consider a proposal from DeSantis that would give Florida Republicans a 20-8 advantage over Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. That’s a four-seat increase from the 16-11 advantage Republicans hold now (Florida gained an additional seat in Congress because of population growth).

DeSantis’s plan severely undercuts the voting power of Black Floridians. There are currently four districts in the state where Black voters can elect their preferred candidates. His plan would leave just two.

The governor has openly talked about his desire to eliminate the fifth congressional district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee in northern Florida. Forty-six per cent of the voting-age population there is Black and it is represented by Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. DeSantis argues the district is unconstitutional because its unusual sprawling shape was drawn primarily with race in mind. “We are not going to have a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin. That is wrong,” he said this month.

His proposed map would chop up the fifth district into four new districts where Black voters would comprise a much smaller share of the population.

“Sometimes you have to apply Occam’s razor and the simplest explanation is the right one … This is a deeply racist move that targets Black political power,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “What he’s doing in the Florida fifth just seems gratuitous. It seems mean-spirited and really designed to really put an oomph on things.”

The district was created in 2015 when a Florida judge adopted new congressional districts for the state after previous ones were struck down as illegal gerrymanders. The state supreme court approved the map, noting the 5th district protected the ability of Black voters to elect the candidate of their choice, giving them a political voice in a part of Florida once home to plantations built by slaves.

Getting rid of the fifth congressional district will have severe consequences for Black voters in the northern part of the state, said Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground, a civic engagement group that plans to lobby lawmakers to reject the governor’s proposal.

“They’re going to be losing access to resources and access to someone who could speak to them within that particular fifth district,” she said. “Not having someone who represents those swath of individuals from Jacksonville from Tallahassee means that we are diluting their voting power, means that the governor is diluting their voting power. And the governor is taking their ability to be heard through the electoral process.”

It’s not clear whether Republicans in the legislature will approve DeSantis’s plan. Earlier this year, they rebuffed the governor’s efforts to draw his own map dismantling the fifth district. But in an unusual move last week, they said the governor would take the lead on submitting a proposal.

When DeSantis initially voiced skepticism about the sprawling fifth congressional district, Republicans in the Florida legislature proposed a compromise. They approved a proposal that would have drawn a more compact district around Jacksonville that kept Black voters together.

Even though the new district would have been about 35% Black, it would have performed as a district where Black voters could elect the candidate of their choice, Li said. Black voters would have made up the vast majority of the Democratic primary electorate, he said, allowing them to pick the Democratic nominee in a district that still would have favored Democrats in a general election.

But DeSantis rejected the more compact district, offering a confusing rationale. A lawyer from his office said lawmakers had considered race too much when they drew the map, violating the US constitution. But he also said the district was not Black enough, saying that the reduced share of Black voters would make it harder for them to elect the candidate of their choice, violating anti-gerrymandering language in the Florida constitution. “It’s like, well, which is it? Is it a Black district or is it not a Black district?” Li said.

DeSantis also rejected a second proposal that would have kept the fifth district largely the same. That proposal, he said, considered race too much.

Instead, DeSantis’s proposal splits Jacksonville into two districts, lumping Black voters in Jacksonville in with white, GOP areas elsewhere.

“If you object to a compact Jacksonville district, your real motive is really clear,” Li said. “You’re just left with the idea that the real problem is that there’s still a district where Black people have power. And that’s the problem that Governor DeSantis has.”

DeSantis’s map is setting up two hugely consequential legal battles over redistricting. The governor seems to be pushing to overturn amendments overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2010 that seek to limit partisan gerrymandering and make it illegal to reduce the ability of minority voters to elect the candidate of their choosing. Republicans have a firm majority on the Florida supreme court.

DeSantis is also pushing for a fight on the federal level. The US supreme court has signaled recently that it is increasingly skeptical of considering race in drawing district lines, and the Florida map could offer another chance for them to make it harder to justify its use. If the courts were to approve DeSantis’s map, it would make it easier for lawmakers to draw discriminatory district lines in the future.

“The traditional understanding from the supreme court has been that you can think about race, you just can’t put voters in districts only because of race,” Li said. “Governor DeSantis basically is taking the position that if you think at all about trying to draw a district that’s a Black district or a Latino district, that the simple thought of thinking about race means that it’s unconstitutional. That’s really aggressive.”

Proposed map would chop up the fifth district into four new ones where Black voters would comprise a much smaller share of the vote – a visual guide

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