Lawyers representing voting-rights organizations presented their final witnesses Monday in a federal redistricting trial accusing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of intentionally discriminating against Black voters during the once-a-decade map-making process.
House Democratic Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, echoed what other witnesses had already testified: The Legislature knew DeSantis’ redrawn map would reduce Black voting power, infringing upon state law.
The governor’s and the Legislature’s lawyers already conceded as much in a separate state lawsuit that struck down the North Florida congressional districts. The state is appealing that decision, arguing those state-level voting protections violate the U.S. Constitution by inappropriately requiring the Legislature to consider voters’ race.
The judges presiding over this case—U.S. District Judges M. Casey Rogers and Alan C. Winsor, along with 11th U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan—have yet to indicate how they might rule. Their decision could have far-reaching implications, not just for Florida, but for the ongoing national conversation about voting rights and racial discrimination.
Common Cause Florida, FairDistricts Now, the NAACP Florida State Conference and a number of individual voters filed the lawsuit last year against DeSantis’ secretary of state. The trial should conclude late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The state expects to present two experts and the governor’s chief of staff, and then both sides will get a chance to summarize their arguments. Any appeal of the court’s ultimate decision would go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In her testimony Monday, Driskell argued the Legislature had initially tried to comply with redistricting laws, even if she disagreed with some of its decisions. However, she claimed that after DeSantis’ veto, the Legislature “abdicated its duty,” knowingly approving a map that weakened the voting strength of Black communities.
She contrasted the state legislative maps, which she said were likely constitutional and weren’t opposed in court by anyone, with the congressional map, which has faced two legal challenges so far.
“This was done by the Legislature with eyes wide open,” Driskell testified. “I want the people of Florida to know that they deserve better.”
The Legislature, she said, was keenly aware of what Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments required, including a “non-diminishment standard” that banned any map that reduces the ability of Black voters to elect candidates of their choice. Before the governor’s intervention, she said, there was a concerted effort to avoid litigation, a lesson learned from previous redistricting cycles.
After the governor complained that a North Florida district drawn by the Legislature wasn’t compact enough because it stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, the Legislature drew a Duval-only seat that Republican leaders said would still allow Black voters to elect their preferred candidates.
Driskell said she opposed the district on policy grounds — she said she wanted Black-majority Gadsden County to be included in the district — but she also conceded that the new district still complied with the Fair Districts standards.
The Duval-only district, she said, seemed tailored to please the governor, offering what Driskell described as a “nod to the governor’s map.”
“It felt like legislative leadership was starting to yield to the governor,” Driskell remarked. She also highlighted the strategic considerations at play, given the governor’s veto power. “He can veto any bill” or appropriation, she said, depicting the tension between legislative autonomy and an increasingly powerful governor.
That district wasn’t enough for DeSantis. He vetoed a bill that included that district.
Lawyers for Secretary of State Cord Byrd pressed Driskell and other plaintiffs’ witnesses on their partisanship.
“As a Democrat, you want to see other Democrats elected to office,” attorney Michael Beato said. At the time of the redistricting, Democratic leaders, Beato pointed out, had worked with partisan groups like the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
UCLA professor Matt Barreto also took aim at the inconsistency between the governor vetoing the congressional map while accepting race-based districts elsewhere.
In fact, the Florida Supreme Court was required to review districts for the state House and Senate, but DeSantis didn’t ask the court to consider his constitutional objections to race-based redistricting.
“There are extreme inconsistencies,” he said, when the governor accepts state legislative districts with lower Black populations that used race as the primary reason for their shape. Barreto also pointed to line drawing done in South Florida congressional districts that packed more Black or Hispanic voters that DeSantis accepted.
“It appears they were singling out” the 5th Congressional District, Barreto said.
The governor had argued that a Duval-only version of the 5th District was not only unconstitutional for taking race into consideration but also that it would have violated the non-diminishment provision by reducing the Black population. This, Barreto said, was wrong.
“We should not overly fixate on the Black voting-age population,” he said. Instead, the state should look at how a district would perform, and he concluded a Duval-only district would have still protected Black voters.
In his expert report, he wrote, “The state of Florida is picking and choosing different and inconsistent standards when deciding which district boundaries to oppose or support.”
Contact Andrew Pantazi of The Tributary at Andrew.Pantazi@jaxtrib.org and @APantazi. This story is published in partnership with The Tributary, a Florida-based nonprofit newsroom.