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DeSantis seeks court advisory opinion on CD5, voting rights group expected to weigh in

Florida's Congressional District 5 stretches across eight counties, connecting African-American voters in Leon and Gadsden Counties to Black voters in part of Jacksonville.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking the state Supreme Court to opine on whether eliminating north Florida's only Black congressional district would violate the state constitution, even though the legislature hasn't yet sent a U.S. House map to the governor for approval.

“It does appear that the governor is trying to kick up enough dust and create enough controversy to detract the legislature from the job that it needs to do, which is to adopt fair maps,” said Kathay Feng, national director of redistricting at Common Cause, a progressive government watchdog group. “All of this has slowed down the process for creating the congressional plan that both the Senate and the House will approve.”

On the first day of Black History Month, DeSantis sent a letter to the court seeking an advisory opinion on whether Congressional District 5 — which stretches from Gadsden County to Jacksonville — must remain a minority access district. The request comes after DeSantis took the unusual step of proposing his own congressional map last month. His version would carve up the roughly 200-mile wide district into four separate districts, effectively diminishing African-American voting power in the region.

Democratic Congressman Al Lawson, who represents the district, says he recently met with constituents who expressed disappointment that the governor would propose eliminating their district without seeking their input. “First they thought it was a joke. But then they found out it wasn’t — it’s for real,” Lawson said. “And they’re really upset with the governor trying to do this.”

The district’s Black voters make up 44% of the constituency, 2020 U.S. Census data shows. While African-American voters don’t hold an absolute majority, they have enough voting power to elect a candidate of their choice. “This is the largest portion of African-American voters in a north Florida district,” Lawson said. “But the governor wants to change all of that. He wants to make those numbers much smaller.”

When the state’s congressional map was challenged in 2015, the state Supreme Court approved the drawing of a district that connects Black voters in Gadsden and Leon Counties with African-American constituents in Jacksonville. “They looked at this configuration and blessed it already,” said Florida League of Women Voters’ President Cecile Scoon. “It’s interesting to learn from the governor why he thinks that that should change now.”

Under the Fair Districts Amendments, the state constitution prohibits the drawing of districts that diminish minority voting power. DeSantis explains in his letter that he’s seeking clarification on that standard as it applies to north Florida’s minority access congressional district in light of a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found two of North Carolina’s Black majority voting districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

While the state Senate has passed a congressional map that keeps the north Florida district largely in tact, the state House is holding off on moving forward with its version until the state’s highest court responds to DeSantis’ letter with an advisory opinion or declines his request. DeSantis has the power to veto any congressional map the legislature passes.

Voting rights groups have until the end of Monday to file briefs on the matter before the state Supreme Court decides whether or not to issue an advisory opinion. Common Cause plans to weigh in on the matter, said Kathay Feng, the organization’s national redistricting director.

“The governor's effort to seek an opinion on congressional maps that don't even exist, are not final from the Florida Supreme Court, is frankly an end run around the Florida constitution.”

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.