The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New district map sanctioned by DeSantis passes after protest by Black legislators

The group of Florida lawmakers chanted and bowed their heads in prayer before the session went into recess

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) backed the new district map for the state. (Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press)
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The Florida House gave final passage to a new congressional map blessed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that gives Republicans the chance to capture as many as four new seats and erases a seat held by a Black Democrat following a dramatic sit-in by state Democrats, many of them Black.

The map, which passed the state Senate on Wednesday, was drawn by DeSantis aides after the governor refused to accept any version that didn’t eliminate the 5th District that stretches along the northern border and was configured years ago to give Black voters a chance to elect a candidate of their choice. The district is represented by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson, who is Black.

The Florida protest began as a Black lawmaker continued speaking after she was told her time had expired. State Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson (D) was discussing the history of voting rights when her microphone was cut, causing other members to yell in anger at her being silenced. The session went into recess. They chanted “We will not be denied,” sang “We Shall Overcome” and bowed their heads in prayer.

“This is what democracy looks like,” Hinson told reporters after the vote. “This is how we fought for civil rights. This is the same way John Lewis fought for the Voting Rights Act. This is what we do when we have nothing else that we know to do. This is the end of our frustration.” She added, “If we don’t have a right to vote, we feel like we’re back in slavery.”

Florida Speaker Chris Sprowls (R) criticized the protesters after the vote, describing their sit-in as a “hijack” and accusing them of pretending “they had to stage a protest to be heard.”

The final congressional map also changes the configuration of another district near Orlando held by a Black Democrat, Rep. Val Demings, who is running for the Senate. The new lines will keep the seat Democratic but were altered to minimize the chances of a Black candidate winning.

The new lines give Republicans the chance to win as many as 20 out of 28 seats in Florida. The current delegation is 16 Republicans to 11 Democrats. The state added a new seat after the 2020 Census.

Florida is one of the last states to finish redistricting as the midterm election season starts in earnest in May. The minimization of electoral opportunities for Black politicians follows a redistricting that did not increase minority seats despite the population gains Latino and Black voters made over the last decade compared with White voters.

The new map, which DeSantis is expected to sign, is the result of a standoff between the governor and members of his own party who had been working on a bipartisan map that would not have dramatically changed the makeup of the congressional delegation.

Florida legislators give DeSantis their power to draw House map

But with the process underway, DeSantis, under pressure from far-right conservatives, including Stephen K. Bannon, who was an adviser to former president Donald Trump, announced he wanted a map that better advantaged Republicans, including the erasure of Lawson’s district. DeSantis claimed Lawson’s district was an illegal racial gerrymander drawn to consider race above any other factors. Democrats say that getting rid of that seat would violate a law against diminishing Black voting power.

In early March, the state legislature passed two maps, a bipartisan one that the Senate had previously advanced and another they hoped would appease DeSantis, shrinking Lawson’s district but not fully erasing it. DeSantis vetoed them and instructed the legislature to return this week for a special session to try again. Before they came back, the Republican leadership announced they would not draft new lines and would await guidance from the governor.

On April 21, the Florida House of Representatives called an abrupt recess after several Black representatives protested redistricting. (Video: The Florida Channel)

The capitulation marked a significant show of deference from state Republicans to DeSantis. His victory will also gain him favor among national Republicans and the “Make America Great Again” base, which had pushed for him to take a strong stance on redistricting. If the Republicans win the U.S. House in the fall by only a few seats, DeSantis, who has his eye on a White House run in 2024, can take credit.

“Once again, DeSantis is showing Florida voters that he is governing the state as a dictator,” Lawson said in a statement. “DeSantis bullied the Florida Legislature into approving his Republican-leaning congressional map during special session. It is alarming that state legislators cannot fulfill their constitutional duties without political meddling.”

Other Black Democrats railed against DeSantis. “The governor has interfered in this process, and it is wrong; we have separations of power in this country for a reason,” state Rep. Fentrice Driskell told reporters. “You’re here only because of a politically ambitious governor who wants to run for president of the United States.”

Democrats plan to sue the state over the map, possibly lodging multiple lawsuits in both state and federal courts.

Adrian Blanco and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.