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Fla. Gov. DeSantis wants lawmakers to dismantle a minority voting district

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Florida's Republican governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature appear to be headed for a showdown over the redrawing of its congressional districts. Governor Ron DeSantis wants maps that would dilute African American voting in two key districts, and he has threatened a veto if lawmakers don't comply. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Under the Constitution, it's up to state legislatures to draw new maps for congressional districts once a decade. But in Florida this year, Governor Ron DeSantis has made it clear that he wants a say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We will not be signing any congressional map that has an unconstitutional gerrymander in it, and that is going to be the position that we stick to, so...

ALLEN: DeSantis is focused particularly on a minority voting district in North Florida. It includes much of Jacksonville and stretches west along the state's northern border. The boundary lines were approved by the court several years ago to uphold federal and state protections for Black voters. DeSantis has proposed his own maps that eliminate that one and another African American district in the Orlando area. Florida's Senate has rejected that idea. Last week, the governor sent a redistricting expert to make his case to members of a committee in Florida's House.

ROBERT POPPER: This district's going to have problems in federal court. If I had a client, I would counsel them that way.

ALLEN: That's Robert Popper with Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group. He argues that drawing a district more than 200 miles long that in one place is just a few miles wide violates a federal requirement for compactness. The district connects rural and urban Black communities along Florida's northeast border. Michael Li with the Brennan Center for Justice says the district is protected not just by the Federal Voting Rights Act, but also by Florida's constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from weakening existing minority voting districts.

MICHAEL LI: So if you have a district that is performing for Black voters, to dismantle it, to make it such that it doesn't elect a Black-preferred candidate would be problematic under Florida law, even if it isn't problematic under federal law.

ALLEN: In the end, committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, rejected DeSantis's plan. A decade ago, Republican leaders drew maps in Florida that embroiled them in lawsuits for several years and ended with courts forcing them to draw new maps that protected the rights of minority voters. Matthew Isbell, a redistricting expert who works with Democrats, says that experience has made DeSantis's partisan maps a hard sell, even with Republican lawmakers.

MATTHEW ISBELL: I think the biggest issue from the lawmakers was, you're asking us to break state law and guarantee a lawsuit. Why on earth would we do that?

ALLEN: For Democrats and voting rights groups, the map drawn by the Republican-controlled House Committee also has problems. It eliminates a protected African American district in Orlando, and voting rights groups will likely challenge it in court if it's adopted. Some Republicans, especially conservative activists, believe the courts, both at the federal and state level, may be ready to reevaluate protections for minority voters. The Supreme Court recently gave way to that argument with a decision allowing Alabama to at least temporarily use maps that activists say dilute the power of Black voters. DeSantis's map would reduce the number of protected African American districts in Florida from four to two and would likely give Republicans two additional seats. Isbell believes the governor, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, is trying to firm up support among conservative activists.

ISBELL: My firm belief is that Ron DeSantis's proposals are not so much about him actually caring what the congressional lines look like - I don't think he really cares - but him wanting to appeal to that base.

ALLEN: At a meeting today, a Florida House Committee will decide whether to approve its new congressional maps, even if that means defying the governor.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVEMIR'S "JELEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.