In Tallahassee and Miami, elected officials are accused of drawing districts that hurt Black voters
From North to South Florida, elected officials are fighting lawsuits that accuse them of undermining Black voting power.
In Tallahassee, a trial wrapped up this week in the federal lawsuit brought by voting rights groups against the DeSantis administration. Their complaint accuses Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential contender, of intentionally discriminating against Black voters during the state’s redistricting process in 2022.
DeSantis' move to break up the formerly majority-Black District 5, which had stretched from west of Tallahassee to Jacksonville, went against the longstanding practice of creating what's known as a Black opportunity district there — an area where Black voters could elect their representative of choice.
“It's unconstitutional to draw a district like that, where race is the only factor,” DeSantis said during a March press conference following his decision to veto a map sent to him by the Legislature.
The former District 5 seat had been held by a Black Democrat for three decades. Now, the area is split across several new districts — all of which are represented by white Republicans.
Meanwhile, in the city of Miami, commissioners were sued last December for alleged racial gerrymandering. In that case, commissioners are accused of drawing districts solely based on race and ethnicity.
During public meetings, officials clearly stated their aim to create one Black district and three Hispanic districts. Their map split neighborhoods apart into different districts, notably the politically active Black community of West Coconut Grove — a change that activists argue would diminish Black Miamians' influence in local government.
The details of the two cases are different. They use different legal theories to claim alleged unconstitutional actions by government officials. But both claim that people in power violated the U.S. Constitution in ways that harm communities of color.
“The common denominator is the fact that this is a clear attack on the Black community and Black voters," said Harold Ford, president of the South Dade Branch of the NAACP, "where you're trying to deny them the opportunity to have an impact on who they desire to represent them."
The fight over Congressional representation for Black North Floridians
After the 2020 Census, Florida gained a new Congressional district, and state legislators had to redraw the state’s map of voting districts.
DeSantis threatened to veto a map that did not meet his requirements, one of which being the dissolution of Congressional District 5.
The district in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas that had large Black populations, and had a Black U.S. Representative for the past three decades.
DeSantis argued the district was racially gerrymandered in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants equal protection under the law.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved a map that preserved the District 5 Black opportunity district while meeting other demands from the governor. DeSantis ultimately vetoed it. The governor then pushed forward his own map, which placed the Black residents who previously lived in District 5 into districts controlled by white Republicans.
Plaintiffs sued in state and federal court, arguing DeSantis violated the Constitution.
“Our case is arguing that the governor and the Legislature intentionally weakened the voice of Black voters on the basis of their race, blatantly discriminating against them by taking away their right to fair and equal representation,” Amy Keith, program director for plaintiff group Common Cause Florida, told WLRN.
Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh sided with voting-rights groups last month and ruled that the overhaul of Congressional District 5 violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” The DeSantis administration appealed Marsh’s decision.
"Our case is arguing that the governor and the Legislature intentionally weakened the voice of Black voters on the basis of their race"
In the parallel federal lawsuit, a three-judge panel is currently weighing its decision after a weeks-long trial, and is expected to come up with a verdict before the end of the year. If DeSantis appeals the federal decision, the appeal will go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the trial, a top DeSantis aide admitted that he did not know of any court ruling that backed up the Governor’s claim that the district was unconstitutional.
An attempt to group most of Miami's Black voters in one district
The plaintiffs in the Miami case, a collection of activism groups including two local branches of the NAACP, argue that Miami commissioners carved up neighborhoods during their redistricting process last year in order to create districts based primarily on residents’ race and ethnicity. Neighborhoods like the politically active Black community of West Coconut Grove.
“They wanted to do it because this was a Black district, a Black group of voters, and they wanted to dilute their vote,” said Ford, who leads the South Dade Branch of the NAACP.
During public meetings throughout the redistricting period, Miami commissioners made numerous comments about maintaining the racial makeup of the five city districts: one Black, one white, and three Hispanic.
The plaintiff groups say that by trying to maintain a majority-Black district in the city, commissioners actually weakened Black voting power in other districts, in turn violating the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore in Miami ruled that the activist groups were likely to succeed in proving that the City's district map was unconstitutional, and ordered the city to draw a new map in June. When the city presented a new map that was largely similar to the original, Moore ordered the city to accept one drawn by the plaintiffs in July.
"Defendant [City of Miami] had an opportunity to pass a constitutional plan that would remedy the unconstitutional violations the Court found was substantially likely to exist in the Enjoined Plan. It did not do so," Moore wrote in his order.
Miami appealed Moore's decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that it was too close to this November's election to change voting districts. The Supreme Court ruled in the city's favor, and the 2023 municipal elections will run with the city's map.
The Miami lawsuit is scheduled to go to a jury trial early next year.
Culture war battles playing out in redistricting
Both cases illustrate how the so-called "culture wars" are affecting policy decisions, according to J. Morgan Kousser, an emeritus professor at the California Institute of Technology who focuses on election law and race relations.
Kousser said the nation’s racial polarization is playing out in the “sausage making” procedure that is redistricting, where politicians get to accomplish certain political objectives by redrawing maps. And it’s the alleged racial objective in these two lawsuits that Kousser said ties them together.
“Particularly after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, there was political commentary that we have ended the era in which race mattered, really. 'We are now entering a colorblind era,' people said,” Kousser told WLRN.
“Since 2008, those hopes have been dissolved," he said.
Both cases stand to have major implications for the future of voting and racial politics in Florida, as the state becomes more diverse.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.