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Hearing set this week on North Florida redistricting

Published on August 21, 2023 at 12:28 pm

Black voters in Northeast Florida could regain a congressional district ahead of next year’s elections if voting rights groups ultimately prevail in an ongoing legal battle in state court.

“This is a pathway to get a seat back,” said Cecile Scoon, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “It’s an opportunity for African Americans in North Florida to choose their representative of choice, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

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Leon County Circuit Court Judge J. Lee Marsh will hear arguments in the case on Thursday before ruling on whether state lawmakers must reinstate a reliably African American voting district in the region that included Jacksonville.

The Florida Supreme Court is likely to take up the case on appeal, Scoon said. That decision is expected by the end of the year, under a recent agreement in the case.

“As time passes with what we believe to be an illegal map, more harm that’s occurring to the citizens and to their ability to have their voices heard.”

The case is expected to go before the Florida Supreme Court by the end of the year

Former Democratic Congressman Al Lawson of Tallahassee lost his bid for reelection last year after his former district was carved out of Florida’s congressional map. “People who had the opportunity to vote for a person of their choice do not have that anymore because it’s strictly Republican,” he said.

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Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the legislature’s proposed congressional districts and urged lawmakers to pass his map instead. The enacted plan carved Lawson’s district into four Republican districts, leaving the northern part of the state — from Pensacola to Jacksonville — without a Democratic seat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposed congressional map would carve up Congressional District 5 (Rep. Al Lawson's district) into four districts across north Florida.

Lawson represented Congressional District 5 — which stretched from Gadsden County to eastern Duval County, picking up African American voters in Tallahassee and Jacksonville from 2017 until earlier this year. If the court reinstates his former district, he’s not sure whether he’d run again, Lawson said. “It’s bigger than me.”

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court approved the former CD5 as a minority access district that satisfied the state constitution’s Fair Districts Amendments, which prohibit diminishing a minority group’s ability to elect their candidate of choice.

The makeup of the state Supreme Court has changed since the court approved the previous Congressional District 5. Today, most of the justices are DeSantis appointees.

If the court orders lawmakers to reinstate an African American voting district in North Florida and they fail to comply early next year, then the previous Congressional District 5 would take effect, under an agreement reached last week by the parties in the case.

Voting rights groups say Florida’s congressional map violates state Constitution

The state Constitution‘s Fair Districts Amendments prohibit drawing voting maps in a way that diminishes a minority group’s ability to elect their candidate of choice or diluting minority voting power. They also bar lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor a particular political party.

During the redistricting process, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle acknowledged that removing North Florida’s minority access district would violate the non-diminishment standard of the Fair Districts Amendments.

Attorneys representing the state acknowledged in a brief filed ahead of this week’s hearing that the map violates the non-diminishment standard. Still, they argue that the provision conflicts with the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it requires lawmakers to place race above other redistricting factors, such as geographic compactness.

Scoon says she doesn’t believe this argument will persuade a judge, given a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering Alabama to add a second Black voting district to its map.

“The United States Supreme Court said that maintaining Black districts and preventing them from being diminished or harmed is in accordance with the United States Constitution and not a violation of the law.”

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

author image Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts. Before moving to Tallahassee, she was a freelance reporter in Panama City. Her public radio journey began at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York. She has a bachelor's degree in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University.
author image Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts. Before moving to Tallahassee, she was a freelance reporter in Panama City. Her public radio journey began at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York. She has a bachelor's degree in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University.

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