Time running short as appellate court ponders how to handle Florida’s congressional map

How fast will the court make a decision?

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on a new congressional map less than a month ago. A circuit court judge this month ordered a replacement map be used instead. With candidate qualifying weeks away, what cartography should elections officials use?

Briefs filed in an appellate court deal with timing questions and quickly approaching deadlines as they argue over the DeSantis map and one submitted by Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere. Meanwhile, the Midterms draw ever closer as an appellate court weighs what should happen next in Florida’s redistricting process.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd want a stay on Leon Circuit Judge Layne Smith’s order replacing the congressional map. Attorney Mohammad Jazil argued Supervisors of Election have limited time to prepare for an Aug. 23 Primary. He also argued the map (P 0109) approved by the Legislature in a Special Session and then signed went through a proper and legal process, so officials should use that to govern elections this year.

“The Florida Legislature was required to pass the Enacted Map this year because of the decennial census,” Jazil wrote. “Indeed, redistricting laws are unlike other legislation in that they must be updated after every decennial census.”

But attorneys for Black Voters Matter and other plaintiffs challenging the map have argued the process proved especially irregular this year. They also claimed the protracted time should not be used to justify employing a map already deemed by the circuit court to violate the state constitution.

“The trial court also found that a plan that preserved Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in North Florida would be practicable for Florida’s supervisors to implement, as it would ‘affect just a handful of counties and can be implemented quickly and without significant administrative difficulties,’” reads a brief filed by plaintiff attorney Frederick Wermuth.

Plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit contending the entire DeSantis map violates the Fair Districts amendment of the Florida Constitution. But with the Midterms so close, they asked Smith to issue an injunction on the map that impacted only North Florida.

The Ansolabehere map submitted by plaintiffs and favored by Smith preserves Florida’s 5th Congressional District in a configuration similar to the last three election cycles and identical to a map approved by the Legislature but vetoed by DeSantis earlier this year. That results in changes to neighboring districts.

DeSantis argued earlier this year that the makeup of CD 5, introduced by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015, was wrongly drawn with race as a motivating factor. Attorneys for the state argue such a configuration intentionally favors Democrats in violation of the Fair Districts amendment and runs afoul of the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

But the timeline for this year’s elections provides the greatest pressure on immediate decisions. The appellate court this week asked for briefs that specifically addressed how use of either map impacted the status quo of elections.

Attorneys for the state and for plaintiffs challenging the DeSantis map noted Florida cannot simply use the same map as prior election cycles. Because of population growth documented in the 2020 Census, Florida picked up a congressional seat, so the two maps in question both divide Florida in 28 districts instead of 27. Additionally, the most recent Census data shows the old districts are malapportioned, meaning their populations differ greatly, while both new maps balance districts to the same population within a single person.

In a separate court case, a Polk County Election Supervisor argued maps absolutely must be in place by May 13, a date since passed, for officials to properly execute elections. However, the replacement map would not impact that Central Florida county.

Plaintiffs challenging the map note the state has already ordered North Florida Election Supervisors to prepare for elections in the event of either map being enacted.

“As the trial court has observed and the Secretary has acknowledged, the Supervisors of Elections are capable of preparing for both contingencies,” Wermuth wrote. “There is no need for this Court to prevent them from doing so.”

State Department attorneys argue the state needs to default to the map signed by the Governor in April as a status quo, while plaintiffs argue a map that preserves CD 5 would be the most familiar for voters.

Smith ordered the replacement to be used and vacated an automatic stay on his decision that went into effect when the state appealed the decision. That means appellate judges must act in order for the DeSantis map to be put back in place. Regardless, the matter likely heads to the Florida Supreme Court whatever decision is made, and plaintiffs challenging the map have suggested in writing the 1st District Court of Appeal should simply certify Smith’s decision and fast-track it to the high court.

Meanwhile, the hardest deadline surrounding the elections comes in mid-June. Candidate qualification begins on June 13 and runs until June 17 at noon. At that point, any candidate running for Congress, including incumbents, must have papers in and certified as to where they intend to run this year.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


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