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A trial over Florida's congressional map continues with more witness testimony

Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media

Attorneys for civil rights groups and voters who are suing over North Florida's congressional districts called their final witnesses on Monday in a federal trial that's expected to end early this week.

Redistricting experts, voters and officials involved in the state's 2022 redistricting process were among the witnesses who took the stand during the first few days of the trial, which began last week. Plaintiffs are trying to convince a three-judge panel that the removal of the region's only congressional district where Black voters could elect their candidate of choice was intentionally racially discriminatory.

“The maps are just bad. They’re unconstitutional," Florida House Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) told WFSU News in an interview after her testimony on Monday. "I think that legislative leadership knew that."

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a map last year that eliminated the region’s only district from Pensacola to Jacksonville where African American voters could elect their candidate of choice to Congress. That was after he vetoed two maps from the legislature that attempted to preserve Black voting power in the region. DeSantis then called lawmakers into a special session to pass his plan, which eliminated the region's only African American opportunity district. "The legislature basically capitulated to him," Driskell said.

"The governor’s involvement not only deprived the public of the opportunity to have input, it deprived voters, particularly Black voters in North Florida with the opportunity to elect their candidate of their choice."

Redistricting experts give testimony supporting plaintiffs

J. Morgan Kousser, a historian at the California Institute of Technology, testified last week that he believed the maps were drawn for a racially discriminatory purpose. "Governor Desantis had influenced the legislature disproportionately," Kousser explained in an interview with WFSU News after his testimony. "His intention was above all to eliminate the possibility that Black voters could elect a candidate of their choice in North Florida."

Attorneys for the state argue the governor's office had no choice but to eliminate a Black-performing district in the region to comply with the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. DeSantis has described the former District 5 as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, despite the Florida Supreme Court's approval of the district in 2015.

 Florida lawmakers approved this map as a backup plan in case their primary map failed a legal challenge. It preserved the former Congressional District 5.
Florida State Legislature
Florida lawmakers approved this map as a backup plan in case their primary map failed a legal challenge. It preserved the former Congressional District 5.

“He said it was required to break up this effective Black district," said Kousser, who's given testimony in more than 60 voting rights cases over the span of about 45 years. "It’s been very unusual for courts to agree that that was absolutely required."

On Monday, Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, gave testimony on his analysis regarding the demographic makeup and voting patterns of the region.

Barreto explained to the judges that Black voters across North Florida tend to vote for the Democratic candidate, while white voters in the region tend to vote for the Republican.

The former District 5 connected African American voters concentrated in Jacksonville and Tallahassee and has performed for Black voters in the last 14 election cycles, Barreto testified to the judges. He explained that he "wasn't surprised" that the district performed for Black voters and other districts in the region performed for white voters. "I had seen similar analyses in this region."

Florida gained an extra congressional seat last year because of its population growth. Between 2010 and 2020, the state added nearly 3 million people. Most of the population growth was due to an increase in nonwhite residents.

Barreto testified that if the white population growth had been zero, the state still would've gained an extra congressional seat.

DeSantis' top aide claims district's removal wasn't intentional

DeSantis' acting chief of staff Alex Kelly, who drew the districts in North Florida, testified on the first day of the trial that the governor's motive for eliminating the district was "based on the constitutionality of it."

When asked whether the governor's goal was to eliminate a Black-performing district in the region altogether, Kelly responded: “He never made that statement.”

Kelly testified that he considered the legislature's proposals and about a dozen drafts using the state's redistricting web application before submitting a final version to the legislature. “To draw a compliant map, it does eliminate that district."

That's based on a legal analysis by the governor's office that states race was the predominant factor in drawing the legislature's proposed Congressional District 5 and that there was no compelling state interest to do that. However, plaintiffs argue the fact that removing the district violates the state constitution is enough to provide a compelling state interest.

In 2010, the Fair Districts Amendments were approved by 63% of voters. Attorneys for the state have acknowledged in a separate, but similar challenge in state court, that North Florida's congressional lines were drawn in a way that violates the Fair Districts' non-diminishment standard.

When asked about racial considerations used when drawing the map, Kelly downplayed the effect this might've had on his work. "They were drawn with race-neutral principles," such as compactness and drawing lines along natural boundaries, along with city and county lines, he explained during his testimony.

Kelly also stated that he had issues viewing the demographic data of each district when using the state redistricting software. However, he acknowledged some awareness that each district in North Florida would perform for white voters, describing it as a "reasonable guess."

A Tallahassee voter in the suit testifies about losing his congressional district

Tallahassee resident Charlie Clark is an African American voter who’s lived in the region for about forty years. Clark is among several voters listed as plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging the state's congressional map.

Clark says the governor’s push to remove the region’s only African American voting district had a negative psychological effect on him. “It was a vicious assault on what I’d come to expect, just as a regular voter in Tallahassee,” Clark testified on the stand.

In an interview with WFSU News, Clark testified, “It upset me because I feel I wanted my elected officials to come up with this new map — however they drew it — but at least then we’d have a chance to have input into this process. And I don’t think we did — I think the governor cut off all input from regular citizens like me.”

The former District 5 was the only Democratic-leaning district from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Former Congressman Al Lawson of Tallahassee held the seat from 2016 until earlier this year after he lost his reelection bid to Republican Rep. Neal Dunn of Panama City under the new map.

Clark explained to the judges during his testimony last week that he felt he lost his voice in Congress as a result of the governor's map. Clark testified that he attends church with Lawson, and that the former representative was "very responsive" to his constituents.

Conversely, Clark told the court that he's had trouble getting in touch with Dunn on issues that were important to him, including abortion rights and how African American history is being taught in schools. He says he's called Dunn's office twice and hasn't gotten a response.

In an interview with WFSU News, Clark explained his reasoning for fighting in court to get the district reinstated: “I think it’s been wrenched from us, for whatever reason, and my goal is to make sure that we go back and get what we had before because it was working.”

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
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