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Florida's legislature meets in a special session to adopt new congressional maps

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Florida lawmakers are giving in to Governor Ron DeSantis on new congressional maps. Redistricting is usually conducted by the lawmakers. But the governor stepped in earlier this year. And in a special session beginning today, the Republican-dominated legislature is expected to vote on a map submitted by the governor. It eliminates two congressional districts that had significant Black populations. And it gives Republicans a good chance to pick up four more seats in Congress. NPR's Greg Allen is covering this story from Miami. Hey there, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is it unusual that lawmakers are yielding to the governor in this way?

ALLEN: Well, it certainly is. It's never happened here in Florida. You know, Republican leaders in Florida's House and Senate did draw their own maps. But because Florida's population has risen quite a bit, the state is gaining a seat in Congress. Leaders in the House and Senate wanted to avoid potential lawsuits that they saw a decade ago by drawing maps that mostly complied with federal and state law and also passed court decisions. The maps they came up with, Governor DeSantis didn't like them, especially two districts drawn to protect the voting power of African Americans. He says court decisions over the last decade have weakened the Federal Voting Rights Act. And discrimination against Black voters at the polls, he says, is no longer a problem that requires protected districts.

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RON DESANTIS: You would have parts of the country where the African American turnout was, like, 8%. I mean, obviously, they were not being allowed to vote. Now you have turnout rates that are much higher across the board. So I think it'd be very, very difficult to show that.

ALLEN: You know, using that reasoning, DeSantis vetoed the legislature's maps, saying he believes they violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution in the special session. Then he brought forward his own maps that they'll then take up and vote on at some point.

INSKEEP: Oh, he is saying that it violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, essentially turning that clause back around to the other race. So what does DeSantis' map look like?

ALLEN: Well, Florida has picked up a seat, so it has 28 congressional seats now. His map redraws districts in a way that likely gives Republicans 20 of those seats, leaving Democrats with just eight. You have to remember that Florida is a state almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. So that's an increase of four seats for Republicans, which has led voting rights advocates to call it a blatant partisan gerrymandering. If DeSantis' map is approved by the legislature, it will certainly be challenged in court. Florida's constitution expressly prohibits districts from being drawn in a way that benefits an incumbent or a political party. It stops this kind of political gerrymandering. DeSantis will have to show to a court that politics didn't play a role in the map that gives Republicans a 12-seat edge over Democrats in Congress.

INSKEEP: Florida is one of the many states where Democrats have done terribly in state and local elections. Do they have any power to stop the governor?

ALLEN: No. Either - in part because of past gerrymandering, Democrats are in a minority in the House and Senate. One Democratic senator says she may even boycott the session beginning today rather than be a party to what she calls a takeover of the process by the governor. But there's mounting outrage about the governor's maps, especially in the Black community. Here's state Senator Shevrin Jones.

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SHEVRIN JONES: In the state of Florida, the Black community will not allow the governor to hijack this process or our back.

ALLEN: You know, Jones spoke yesterday at a news conference in Miami with more than a dozen Black elected officials and activists. The governor's map eliminates two of Florida's current four protected Black voting districts, redrawing them in a way that they'll be more likely now to elect Republicans. Voting rights groups and Democrats say that will violate federal law and Florida's constitution, which prohibits drawing district lines in a way that diminishes the voting power of minorities. DeSantis says he's expecting a court battle. He says he wants the courts to overturn that provision in the state constitution. Dwight Bullard, a voting rights activist with Florida Rising, said he believes all this has to do with DeSantis' possible 2024 presidential bid.

DWIGHT BULLARD: I understand that the governor wants to put himself in the history books next to names like Bush or Reagan. But unfortunately, he finds himself in the history books next to names like Barnett, Faubus and George Wallace.

ALLEN: That's Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and Alabama Governor George Wallace, names I know you remember, Steve. These were all former segregationist Southern governors, part of U.S. history. DeSantis' opponents say they'll fight him in the courts and at the ballot box. And, of course, he's up for reelection in November.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami. Greg, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.