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Top redistricting Democrat worries state Legislature 'will do what the governor wants'

One of the Legislature-approved Congressional district maps that was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Screenshot of floridaredistricting.gov
One of the Legislature-approved Congressional district maps that was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Gov. Ron DeSantis followed through this week with his threat and vetoed two different redistricting maps created by the state legislature.

The maps kept in place District 5, a minority access district in North Florida that was held by Democrat Rep. Al Lawson. Another seat that’s caught up in this matter is the one held by Central Florida Democrat Rep. Val Demings.

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Lawmakers said the new boundaries comply with the state constitution that says political districts cannot be drawn to favor any party, or to deny minorities equal opportunity to elect their representatives. But DeSantis argued both maps violate the U.S. Constitution.

"In their understandable zeal to try to comply with what they believe the Florida Constitution required, (state lawmakers) forgot to make sure what they were doing complied with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," the governor said.

The 14th Amendment includes the equal protection clause.

Congressman Al Lawson, whose 5th Congressional District would be redrawn, called it "absurd" for the governor to cite a post-Civil War amendment aimed at addressing racial disparities.

State lawmakers must now return to Tallahassee for a four-day special session, beginning April 19. And the focus will be on where to put political lines on the map.

"Our goal is for Florida to have a new congressional map passed by the Legislature, signed by the Governor and upheld by the court if challenged," said Senate Pres. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) in a statement after the governor called the special session.

Kelly Skidmore (D-Boca Raton), the ranking Democrat on the House Redistricting Congressional Subcommittee, thinks the Republican-dominated Legislature will deliver for DeSantis.

"The only way to do that is to do exactly what the governor wants. And unfortunately, that is most likely what the Republican leadership will do," she said. "Which in my opinion, and that of many of my colleagues, eliminates minority access to Congress."

Political boundaries must comply with the state's Fair Districts constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2010. It requires political districts to be compact and contiguous, not favor a political party and should not shrink the ability of minorities to elect members to Congress.

The governor's veto, however, cited the U.S. Constitution, stating the map violates the 14th Amendment. "Although I understand the Legislature's desire to comply with the Florida Constitution, the Legislature is not absolved of its duty to follow the U.S. Constitution," he wrote in his veto letter, highlighting where the two documents may conflict.

"One man's opinion doesn't necessarily dictate whether or not that passes the test. So there is a difference of opinion. And ultimately, if it must go to the court, the court will decide," Skidmore said.

The Florida rules have two tiers. The first include a ban on redrawing districts to favor a party of incumbent. Another prohibition is against determining district boundaries “with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice." Finally, districts must be contiguous.

One of the second tier requirements is to draw compact districts, but this is not as important as the first tier rules and can be ignored if it violates federal rules such as the Voting Rights Act.

The Florida Roundup contacted three Republican state Senators and invited them to participate in the program. None accepted the invitation.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.