Florida state senators this week offered a rare hint of bipartisan agreement on a plan to redraw a swing state’s congressional district boundaries in a way that placates both majority Republicans and minority Democrats — and likely a state Supreme Court that is keeping careful watch of both.
But a last-minute intervention from an unusual source — Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — has tripped up what might have been a smooth finish to a bumpy process, adding what amounts to a new lap of an already-long course just as legislators thought they were nearing the finish line.
DeSantis this week proposed his own version of a map, which would likely hand his party control of 17 of 28 seats in Congress for the next decade while ensuring Democrats eight seats. The remaining three seats would be narrowly divided between the two parties.
In a statement, the governor’s top lawyer said DeSantis’s proposal would adhere more closely to state and federal redistricting rules.
“We have submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations,” general counsel Ryan Newman said.
Newman hinted that DeSantis might veto a map that did not suit his tastes.
“Because the Governor must approve any congressional map passed by the Legislature, we wanted to provide our proposal as soon as possible and in a transparent manner,” the attorney said.
But days later, the state Senate adopted its own map, one that divides the state’s 28-member delegation between 14 Republican-heavy districts, eight that favor Democrats and six that would be competitive.
That version passed the Senate in a 31-4 vote, with five members not voting, though over the objections of Latino advocacy groups that say it unduly dilutes their voting power. Republicans control 24 of 40 seats in the state Senate.
Republicans in the legislature declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment, in part for fear of having their words used against them in eventual lawsuits that are certain to come no matter which side prevails.
But Democrats who voted for the Senate-passed plan said they were surprised at DeSantis’s intervention, which came after the legislature had been at work for months on its own plans.
“What his map was, at the last minute, we didn’t know. He just sent this map over and wanted us to take it up,” said state Sen. Linda Stewart (D). “I don’t know what authority he had to do that, but I can tell you he only had, I don’t know if it was 72 hours or some limited time for a senator to pick up his map, and nobody did.”
The rival maps contain several glaring differences, among them boundaries around the heavily populated Orlando, Tampa and Miami areas. But most notably, DeSantis’s map eliminates a Democratic district that stretches from Tallahassee to the Jacksonville area along the Georgia border and is currently represented by Rep. Al Lawson (D).
The Senate-approved map maintains Lawson’s district as a majority-minority seat, similar to one the Florida Supreme Court established ahead of the 2016 elections and at least vaguely reminiscent of a district that has existed for all but a few years since the 1960s — albeit a district that has shrunk geographically as Florida’s population has boomed.
The Senate’s proposal has now headed to the state House, where majority Republicans have proposed two different maps of their own, both of which favor Republicans more than the Senate version while preserving Lawson’s district.
DeSantis backers maintain the Lawson district represents an unconstitutional gerrymander because it stretches so far east and west between north Florida’s two population centers.
But the last-minute dispute is likely to throw a wrench into what might otherwise have been minor negotiations between the two legislative chambers.
“The governor injecting himself into this I think adds greater uncertainty,” said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert at the University of Florida who has clashed with DeSantis. “If DeSantis wants to pick a fight with the legislature, we could see a fight, because it looks like legislative leadership in the Senate didn’t want to go along with the governor on this plan.”
Hovering over the debate is a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010 that sought to limit partisan influence in the redistricting process. The state Supreme Court ruled a redistricting map adopted by Republicans the following year did not comply with those standards, forcing a new map that handed Democrats several new seats in the middle of the decade.
But in the years since, both DeSantis and his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott (R), have appointed four new justices to the state’s highest court, handing jurisdiction over the Fair Districts standard to what is likely a more conservative court.
“We don’t really know to what degree that Republican court is going to tolerate any hanky panky the districts will have,” McDonald said.
Stewart, the Senate Democrat, said the map she voted to approve was designed to withstand judicial scrutiny.
“Ours will meet the judiciary’s requirement,” Stewart said in an interview.