The once-a-decade redistricting process has headed to the courts but a new congressional map is on hold, as Gov. Ron DeSantis wades into a potential battle over a North Florida district.
The Florida Senate voted unanimously last week to approve a plan (SJR 100) that sets new boundaries for the 40 Senate seats and 120 state House seats, sending the redrawn legislative districts to the Florida Supreme Court for review.
"We can and should be very proud of the work we've done here today," Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said. "And now we'll see if the courts are equally as proud."
Opponents have raised concerns that Florida's growing minority populations haven't been adequately addressed in the district changes, which likely will maintain Republican control of the Legislature into the 2030s.
The maps could lead to the GOP's dominance of the Senate slipping by one seat and the House by seven seats, based on voting patterns in the 2020 election.
Work on the congressional map paused this week after DeSantis asked the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion about his effort to revamp what is now Congressional District 5.
The district is held by Congressman Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, and was designed to help with minority representation. It stretches more than 200 miles from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee.
In a letter to Chief Justice Charles Canady, DeSantis focused, in part, on what is known as a "non-diminishment standard" in the Florida Constitution. That standard prevents districts from being drawn that will diminish the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
"Specifically, I ask whether the Florida Constitution's non-diminishment standard requires that congressional districts be drawn to connect minority populations from distant and distinct geographic areas if doing so would provide the assembled minority group sufficient voting strength — although not a majority of the proposed district — to elect a candidate of its choice," the governor wrote.
Lawson issued a statement expressing disappointment in what he called DeSantis' "continued assault on the rights of Black and minority voters."
The court set a deadline of noon Monday, Feb. 7, for "interested persons" to submit briefs.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Ashley Moody has 15 days to file a petition with the Supreme Court seeking a ruling on the validity of the redrawn legislative districts. The court will have 30 days to issue an order, with opponents and supporters of the maps able to file briefs.
MAKING VOTING TOUGHER
As a federal judge weighs the constitutionality of an elections law passed last year (see page 15), the Florida House last Thursday started moving forward with a new proposal that includes adding still more steps for voting by mail, as well as creating a state office to investigate alleged elections fraud.
The House Public Integrity & Elections Committee voted 12-6 to approve the proposal. Earlier in the week, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee also approved the Senate version of the bill.
Under the bills, people voting by mail would be required to write in a designated space the last four digits of their driver's license numbers, state identification-card numbers or Social Security numbers.
Another part of the bills would create an "Office of Election Crimes and Security" in the Department of State. The office, in part, could initiate inquiries and conduct preliminary investigations into allegations of election-law violations.
The election-law changes are being considered as Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker holds a trial over a sweeping elections law passed by the Legislature last year.
Plaintiffs allege that the 2021 law will make it harder for Black and Hispanic voters to cast mail-in ballots and register to vote.
During testimony this week, Walker at times appeared skeptical of plaintiffs' argument that the legislation was designed to target people of color expressly.
"Rather than discriminatory intent when there's no substantial evidence ... of fraud as a justification, isn't it just as easily the justification that the law was passed to keep the former president happy?" Walker asked.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights Florida and two dozen other groups filed lawsuits challenging the measure. The trial focuses on parts of the law dealing with mail-in ballots and third-party registration groups, which plaintiffs say minority voters rely on more heavily than whites.
The law was part of GOP leaders' efforts nationally to make it harder for people to vote by mail after former President Donald Trump's election loss to Democrat Joe Biden — even though Trump won Florida by a significant margin.
WATCHING YOUR SPEED
On a separate trip to South Florida, DeSantis might have signaled trouble for a bill moving in the state Senate.
Appearing in Palm Beach County, DeSantis complained about parts of a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure law.
"With all the money they're throwing out, they're spending $15 billion on speed cameras," DeSantis said. "You're driving, they take a picture of your license plate, just send you a bill. I don't like that. Is that more surveillance in our society? I don't know why you would want to go down that road."
DeSantis said federal spending for speed cameras is "over $10 billion" a few hours later during an appearance in Miami.
Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced federal funding will be available to help communities with road safety, including promoting "speed safety cameras as a proven safety countermeasure."
"That law creates a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program, providing $6 billion to help cities and towns deliver new, comprehensive safety strategies, as well as accelerate existing, successful safety initiatives," Buttigieg said.
DeSantis' criticism came on the heels of a Florida Senate bill that would allow local governments to use traffic cameras to catch speeders in school zones. The bill, which has cleared two Senate panels without opposition, would lead to $158 fines for owners of vehicles that travel 10 mph or more over speed limits in school zones.
Bill sponsor Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, said the proposed change "gives communities a simple, effective and inexpensive way to protect our students." A House version has not been heard in committees.
NO AUTONOMY. NO EXCEPTIONS.
A proposal that would prevent doctors from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy got initial backing last week in the Senate, as Republicans rejected an amendment that would have made exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
The proposed amendment was filed by Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation.
"As a survivor of sexual assault, I'm deeply, deeply concerned ... (about) what (the bill) will mean for women and girls across the state who may become pregnant as a result of rape," Book said.
Bill sponsor Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who is chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the decision to reject the proposed amendment.
"Like I said in the debate, women who have had incestual situations, more often than not, are encouraged to have that abortion so that evidence is gone. That's what happens to these young women in reality. Women who are human trafficked have repeated abortions ... so that they can get back on the street. If you really want to protect these women, dealing with abortion is not the way to do it," Stargel said.
The measure needs approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee before it could go to the full Senate. The House version of the bill also has moved forward in committees.