Plaintiffs challenging Florida’s new congressional map fear running the Midterms under the new lines will cause irreversible harm to Black voters.
Attorneys will make the case to a judge in Leon County Circuit Court on Wednesday that, at least in North Florida, different cartography must be put in place. Olivia Mendoza, deputy director of litigation and policy at National Redistricting Foundation, said there should be plenty of time for a judge to issue an injunction and for alternative political boundaries to be considered that don’t diminish the voting power of Black voters from Tallahassee to Jacksonville.
“We were very thoughtful about what is realistic and what relief can we provide in 2022 and feel confident that this narrow issue can and should be decided prior to the election,” Mendoza told reporters in a Tuesday press conference.
The National Redistricting Foundation will provide backing for a lawsuit filed by Black Voters Matter, the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs fighting Florida’s congressional redistricting plan in state court.
The group argues a map (P 0109) produced by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office violates the Fair Districts amendment in Florida’s Constitution. That prohibits redistricting that diminishes the ability of minority communities to elect a candidate of their choice.
Critics of the map say it will cut in half the number of districts where Black voters control who wins congressional seats. Most notably, DeSantis’ cartography dismantles a North Florida seat stretching from Tallahassee to Jacksonville represented now by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Congressman. The result is that Jacksonville will be split between two Republican-leaning and majority-White congressional districts.
Attorneys for the state argue the old configuration of Lawson’s district — in place since 2015, when the Florida Supreme Court threw out a map drawn by the Legislature — in fact, violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. DeSantis vetoed maps approved by the Legislature because he believed having a seat stretched to encompass Black communities over a 200-mile swath of the state illegally draws a district motivated by race.
Attorneys for Secretary of State Laurel Lee argued in a brief this week that retaining the Lawson district’s prior configuration violates Fair Districts itself because it is gerrymandered to benefit Democrats. Fair Districts prohibits drawing lines to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.
Plaintiffs said DeSantis’ arguments assert the Fair Districts amendment conflicts with the federal Constitution, but that in effect concedes his map violates the state constitution.
“Gov. DeSantis’ congressional districting plan deeply diminishes Black representation and will have a harmful impact on Black communities far beyond this cycle,” said Mone Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs at Florida Rising. “We believe the courts have a duty to make this right. The Governor himself has acknowledged that his redistricting maps do not comply with the Florida Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling about their districts with this lawsuit.”
And while attorneys for Lee suggest changing maps this close to an election could lead to voter confusion, Mendoza said there’s still plenty of time to correct an egregious wrong. While some election officials submitted testimony in a federal trial that a map must be in place by Friday to be implemented for the August Primary, Mendoza argued there are still four months before a vote.
Plaintiffs also note the only reason this matter must be dealt with now is that it took Florida so long to have a map signed. DeSantis vetoed cartography approved during the regular Legislative Session, with lawmakers coming back only in late April to approve DeSantis’ map.
“We know that there’s statute of limitations for a whole bunch of things with theft and rape and even murder,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter. “But the perpetrator doesn’t get to say ‘you know what, yeah, I violated your rights, but you ran out of time.’”
Mendoza also said that while plaintiffs haven’t submitted an alternative map to implement, there is cartography to choose from if a judge grants an injunction within the next couple weeks. Indeed, a total of 112 maps have been submitted through a public portal on the state’s official redistricting website, including the three from the Governor’s Office.
The Senate also approved a map increasingly embraced by outside groups. A judge could also consider maps vetoed by the Governor but approved by both chambers of the Legislature, one which replaces Lawson’s district with a Black access seat contained entirely within Duval County and one that preserves the Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district hugging the state’s northern border.
Regardless of whether an injunction comes ahead of the Midterms, the case will proceed. Shawn Bartelt, second vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, noted it took years to overturn Florida’s map a decade ago but legal lines per the Florida Supreme Court were in place for the 2016 election cycle.
“We find no solace in returning to court a decade later,” Bartelt said, “but we fight again for fair districts that the voters in Florida demanded and to ensure that the law is followed in the Sunshine State.”