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Opinion Florida redistricting gets murky, and of course DeSantis is involved

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Tampa on March 2. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Give it to Florida’s Republican governor: Ron DeSantis has some audacious political timing.

On Jan. 16, the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, DeSantis released his proposed congressional map, which would erase a majority-Black voting district on a stretch of North Florida that once gloried in its antebellum plantations. The area is referred to historically as “the slave belt” and is home to the only Black member of Congress in the Florida Panhandle.

DeSantis’s map would also split the Black vote so sharply in a redesigned Orlando congressional district that Black Floridians could also lose out there, leaving only two of four Black-majority districts.

And yet, this was not DeSantis’s only diabolical show of force as he ponders a 2024 presidential run.

The very fact that he drew and peddled his own set of congressional maps to the legislature surprised even Florida’s politicians, including his conservative acolytes. Nobody can remember the last time — if there was one — that a Florida governor did so.

Then again, the post-Trump era is unlike any other. It turns out that DeSantis was taking direction from Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump guru, who broadcast his marching orders via his “War Room” podcast. Bannon has been pressuring Republicans across the country to expand the number of pro-Trump districts by focusing on map lines.

As The Post reported, only days before DeSantis unveiled his map, the “War Room” account on Gettr, a social media site, asked listeners to contact DeSantis “and tell him to [stay] focused on redistricting in his state to be sure MAGA gets these seats.”

Bannon later crowed over the governor’s compliance.

Understandably, state Republican House and Senate lawmakers, who were busy finalizing their own meticulously crafted maps, felt ambushed. Just 10 years ago, the Republican-dominated legislature had defied a new state gerrymandering law and were punished by the courts. They did not want a rerun.

The governor’s move also flabbergasted Rep. Al Lawson, the Black Democrat whose 5th Congressional District in North Florida is the one that DeSantis wants to shift away from rural counties in favor of the Jacksonville area. This would diminish the power of Black voters in less-urban areas. “The governor doesn’t really care about minority voters,” Lawson lamented.

But DeSantis never retreats from a rumble in the spotlight. He claims the Lawson district was unconstitutionally gerrymandered. This should be news to the Florida Supreme Court, which had in 2015 approved the district map lines in keeping with the state constitution. The constitution bars the state from approving a map that diminishes minority voting strength, among other things. The federal Voting Rights Act has a similar requirement.

When the legislature balked at DeSantis’s map, he went to the Florida Supreme Court, now packed with conservatives, and sought their quickie opinion. Surprisingly, the court rebuffed him, saying it was too complicated to answer in an advisory opinion.

DeSantis then threatened to veto the legislature’s congressional map if it doesn’t hew to his Republican power grab.

Though some observers think Republicans could gain as many as four seats, the more likely scenario is that they gain two under DeSantis’s map, raising their total to 18 of 28 congressional seats, further consolidating their power.

The state House, eager to please DeSantis and worried about a potential veto, is now expected to vote on two maps on Friday; one that keeps the 5th Congressional District mostly intact and a last-minute DeSantis-friendly second one that does not. Both would likely give Republicans the two-seat bump to 18.

The Senate map, the fairest of the pack, would likely keep the Republican majority at 16 seats and give Democrats an extra new seat. It also would protect all four Black-majority voting districts.

With the legislative session ending March 11, the state House and Senate will have one week to negotiate a solution.

Decennial redistricting fights are as common in Florida as sun-fried tourists. Gerrymandering was so blatant in the state that in 2010 voters passed two Fair Districts constitutional amendments, as they were called, hoping to shut it down.

Two years later, the GOP-controlled Florida legislature flouted the new mandates so flamboyantly it was hard to ignore. The 5th Congressional District was particularly problematic. Voters rights groups sued and the muck spilled out during the legal process. GOP consultants had been secretly involved; maps were submitted under the name of an unsuspecting college student; flash drives were smuggled out to political operatives; emails vanished.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court excoriated the legislature and ordered it to redo the map. And, with help from voter rights groups, the legislature did, introducing a new 5th Congressional District that stretches 140 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

Now DeSantis has his own ideas of fairness. Let’s hope the legislature has a long memory.

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