The Legislature won’t produce any new redistricting maps after all. It remains to be seen what that means for an inevitable court challenge.
As members prepare for a Special Session, leaders in the Florida House and Senate announced Monday they will leave congressional cartography to the Governor’s Office.
“At this time, Legislative reapportionment staff is not drafting or producing a map for introduction during the Special Session,” reads a memo from House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.
“We are awaiting a communication from the Governor’s Office with a map that he will support. Our intention is to provide the Governor’s Office opportunities to present that information before House and Senate redistricting committees.”
That conclusion isn’t what anybody involved in talks between the House, Senate and Governor’s Office hoped for. But it appears now to parties to be the path forward least fraught with political consequences. It also sets the stage for Republican leadership within the Legislature to step aside with the expectation the Governor can defend maps even if lawmakers themselves fear the final product violates provisions of the state constitution.
The maps have created a rare point of tension between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The GOP Governor signaled early in the Session he was unhappy with the direction of the Legislature regarding redistricting. While he has no constitutional role in the drawing of legislative boundaries for the Florida House and Senate, congressional reapportionment goes to the Governor for his signature or veto. After signaling during Session he would do so, DeSantis vetoed a map passed by both chambers of the Legislature.
Lawmakers throughout the process stressed the need to adhere to Florida’s Constitution and the Fair Districts amendment passed by voters in 2010. After the Legislature ran afoul of that amendment in 2012, it led to a congressional map being thrown out by courts. Specifically, the amendment bars maps “drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”
The 2012 congressional map, along with a state Senate map that year, were swapped mid-decade with one drawn by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, plaintiffs in a case against the state.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues and Rep. Tom Leek, respective chairs of the Senate Reapportionment Committee and House Redistricting Committee, actively worked to avoid the same fate this year. Both stressed the importance of maps that ultimately went through the legislative process.
“That map should be drawn by Floridians’ elected representatives, not the courts or partisan interest groups — the Legislature takes this responsibility seriously,” Leek previously said in a statement to Florida Politics.
“My anticipation would be, we go in and make a good faith effort the House and Senate can agree upon and the Governor would be willing to accept,” Rodrigues said.
But now, the entire process appears to have been deferred to the Governor.
That said, lawmakers still anxiously await whatever product comes from DeSantis and his office. It’s still possible a third map comes out that draws heavily from one passed by the Florida Legislature, at least in regions outside heavily Black districts in North and Central Florida.
Some outside watchdog groups have trashed the DeSantis map as driven by partisan interests. Performance analyses show the latest draft from the Governor would produce 20 congressional districts won by Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and just eight won by Democrat Joe Biden.
By comparison, the primary map passed by the Legislature (H 8019) has 18 Trump districts and 10 Biden districts. Of note, that map still drew opposition from all but one Democrat in the Legislature, many of whom complained it did not expand the number of minority access seats. Others criticized the fact the map even acknowledged complaints from the Governor.
Matt Isbell, a Democratic consultant and the founder of MCI Maps, called Desantis’ map a “walking lawsuit,” and exactly the sort of weak legal ground the Legislature has worked to avoid.
At the same time, DeSantis has signaled an interest in testing the federal constitutionality of the Fair Districts amendments.
DeSantis has been most vocal about the configuration of a north Florida district, Florida’s 5th Congressional District, now represented by Democrat Al Lawson. While Florida’s Fair Districts amendment says redistricting cannot diminish the voting power of minority communities to elect a candidate of their choice, DeSantis said the district as it exists now is a racial gerrymander that violates the U.S. Constitution.
“(In) their, I guess, understandable zeal to try and comply with what they believe the Florida Constitution requires, they forgot to make sure what they were doing complied with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” DeSantis said.
Lawson has promised to counter DeSantis’ argument in court, arguing protecting minority voting power remains a requirement of both the state Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
“The Florida Legislature is caving to the intimidation of DeSantis and his desire to create additional Republican seats in Congress by eliminating minority-access districts,” Lawson said. “Previously, the Florida Supreme Court scolded the Florida Legislature for injecting partisan politics into the reapportionment process. Florida voters were hopeful that legislators would have learned their lesson. They did not. Again, I am not surprised, but disappointed with the Legislature’s inability to fulfill their constitutional duties as elected officials without political interference from DeSantis.”
The Legislature notably tried to address that concern in its final map. Unlike a map approved previously by the Senate (S 8060), the primary map, which was produced by the Florida House, replaced CD 5 with a district contained entirely within Duval County but which House and Senate analysts believed would still perform for minorities.
Lawmakers signaled some skepticism themselves about whether courts would allow such a change to the North Florida seat, and took the unprecedented step of attaching a backup map to the redistricting bill (H 8015) that kept Lawson’s district mostly intact.
But while DeSantis’ criticisms and a veto message from General Counsel Ryan Newman, focused exclusively on issues with CD 5, the maps from DeSantis’ office were radically different throughout the rest of the state.
For example, the Governor’s maps, also submitted by Newman, redraw Tampa Bay’s district to combine parts of the jurisdictions represented by Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, apparently leaving the region with one Democratic seat instead of two. The maps also dramatically redraw Florida’s 20th Congressional District, represented now by Democratic Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick.
But the maps also significantly impact Republican-held seats.
For example, a district represented by Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican, gets cleaved in two, with the Manatee County area central to his district landing in a new district oriented toward Tampa Bay. The Sarasota County portion, meanwhile, joins a seat that significantly overlaps with a district now represented by Republican Rep. Greg Steube. It’s unclear where Buchanan would run in such a scenario, and his decision would likely set off political dominoes.
Close observers to the process say what appears in the Governor’s next submission will determine the tone of Session. If DeSantis’ team largely incorporates the Legislature’s plan outside of CD 5 and also Florida’s 10th Congressional District, that could mean a loosening of tension, at least among Republican lawmakers.
But it’s also likely Democrats will raise issues beyond whether the maps employ racial gerrymandering. The Governor has not openly questioned language in Florida’s constitution about favoring a party over another, and while partisan performance was a smaller issue in legislative deliberation on reapportionment, it could loom large if DeSantis’ maps indeed eliminate three or four safe Democratic or competitive seats.
Beyond that, Democrats have already complained that giving DeSantis the reins destroys any semblance of separation of powers. No Governor has ever submitted a redistricting map in Florida in modern history. Now, the Governor will most likely soon answer the question whether to sign or veto a map designed by his own team.
“The fact that the Florida Legislature is playing by their own rules, ignoring the checks and balances that have been put in place, and giving Gov. Ron DeSantis the authority to give input on what he thinks the congressional maps should look like is unprecedented,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat.
And with the high stakes on control of Congress up for grabs, critics from around the country are likely to support any legal challenge that occurs.
“The Florida legislature’s decision to hand redistricting over to Governor Ron DeSantis is an unprecedented and shameless abdication of their responsibilities as an elected body,” said Abel Iraola, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Large majorities of Floridians from across the political spectrum have made it clear they want to see fair maps. Based on his public comments, there is no doubt that any proposal from Governor DeSantis would be a nonstarter and an attack on Black representation in Florida.”