FL House poised to vote on congressional districts: both DeSantis’ plan and backup

Dem efforts to restore public rights to challenge plans in court fail

By: - March 4, 2022 7:00 am

State Rep. Joseph Geller, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

The Florida House’s two-tiered approach to congressional redistricting – proposing a “primary” plan submitted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and a “secondary” plan crafted by House members in case judges strike down the first – fails to take a stand on a critical minority voting-rights dispute, Democrats argued Thursday.

Both plans differ from the state Senate’s proposed congressional map by creating one less protected Black-majority district.

Further, Democrats argued Thursday the House plan wrongly imposes new limits on filing legal challenges against whatever new map of congressional districts the Legislature adopts.

Both criticisms, discussed in debate on the House’s congressional redistricting, failed as amendments to the bill, which faces further debate and a vote on Friday in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed congressional map, described as “primary” in the House bill. Source: FL House of Representatives March 2022

Redistricting chairman Tom Leek, a Volusia County Republican, said the two-tiered plan would give DeSantis a chance to present his “novel approach” to the Florida Supreme Court, but also would keep the House’s plan at the ready if the court rules against the governor. DeSantis submitted his proposed congressional map, with three Black-majority districts and three Hispanic-majority districts, shortly after the Senate approved one that also protects a fourth Black district.

“We have the ‘primary’ map there because we are fully aware that the governor has a veto pen, and he wants to bring forth an argument in the court, and the primary map is specifically chosen so that he will have the ability to bring that argument before the court,” Leek said.

Republican state Rep. Tom Leek. Credit: FL House of Representatives

“The secondary map is there so that the court has an expression from this Legislature — because it’s our responsibility to draw the maps — that should his argument fail, the secondary map will be there and kick in.”

Leek later added, “I can tell you that we like our map.”

Palm Beach Rep. Kelly Skidmore, top-ranking Democrat on the House congressional redistricting committee, argued the House should take a stand on the better of the two maps.

“What are we afraid of?” Skidmore asked. “My only comfort is we can still negotiate with the Senate, to protect protected seats. I will hang onto the thread of that hope that we can get there. But this is embarrassing.”

The House-crafted map of congressional districts for north Florida. Source: FL House of Representatives March 2022

Hillsborough County Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the House Democratic policy chair, and Rep. Joe Geller, representing parts of Broward and Dade, tried to amend the bill (which was presented as a strike-all amendment to the Senate’s congressional plan) to restore the four-year statute of limitations on filing in court a “fact-based challenge” to a new redistricting plan. She said 30 days is not enough time for everyday citizens to prepare such a challenge, though experienced voting-rights organizations likely could.

Driskell noted that citizens submitted roughly 100 legislative and congressional district maps through the Legislature’s website, www.FloridaRedistricting.org, and deserve to be heard if they want to mount a challenge to the maps adopted by the Legislature.

“If we believe in our maps … then allow the procedure to proceed as it would,” Driskell said. “We don’t need to use procedure as a weapon to cut off citizen’s voices. You’re basically saying to Florida voters, we don’t want to hear from you. That’s an insult to Florida voters.”

Leek countered that a 30-day limit provides more certainty about upcoming elections.

“All this does by adding a 30-day limitation is allow citizens to know what district they live in and who they’re going to vote for,” Leek said.

Driskell pressed on, stressing that whatever maps the House approves this session (which ends on March 11) will be in place for candidates and voters this fall regardless whether challenges are filed and plans later overturned.

Driskell’s amendment to restore the statute of limitations on challenges to four years and another to set it at one year both failed. Driskell and Geller predicted the 30-day limit will cause the House plan to fail when reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court because it breaks with precedent on due process for citizens.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orange County Democrat, and other Democrats asked the bill sponsors on what grounds the House is pushing a “ranked-choice” bill on congressional districts – reflecting uncertainty about the constitutionality of the governor’s map – when it does not offer that approach on other bills likely to face constitutional challenges.

Geller predicted the governor’s map will not withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, because it eliminates a protected Black district, District 5 in central north Florida.

“It won’t. It’s unconstitutional,” Geller said. “We’re supposed to pass what we think is right. This fallback position … would be a terrible precedent.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.