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Voting groups sue Florida, saying congressional map violates state constitution

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Florida, voting rights groups are challenging new congressional maps, maps drawn to favor Republicans and eliminate two districts designed to help elect Black lawmakers. The maps were submitted by Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and approved last week by Florida's legislature. Democrats and other critics say they violate provisions in the state constitution. NPR's Greg Allen is following all this. Hey there, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so voting rights groups have gone to court. Talk us through the how. How do they say these maps violate the constitution?

ALLEN: Well, you know, about 10 years ago, Florida voters adopted amendments to the Constitution that now govern the redistricting process here. One of the provisions that they were - that were adopted say that lawmakers can't draw maps that favor any incumbents or political parties. And under the new map, Republicans are likely to win 20 of the state's now 28 congressional districts. That leaves Democrats with a good chance of winning just eight of those districts. And here's the rub. Florida is a state that's almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. So you've got that 20-8 disparity. In court, Republicans will have to answer questions about why the maps give their party so many more seats, almost double the number of the Democrats get.

Another part of Florida's constitution says that lawmakers can't adopt maps that diminish the voting strength of minorities. And this map from the governor eliminates two voting districts established under court order to protect the ability of voters to elect Black candidates. And that sparked an outcry from - by voting rights groups and Democrats. Here's state Senator Shevrin Jones.

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SHEVRIN JONES: And to Governor DeSantis, I'm not going to even call what you're doing a culture war anymore. I'm going to call it just what it is. It's a racist tactic.

ALLEN: We've heard that from many other lawmakers and activists as well. DeSantis is a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, and Democrats say this is part of his effort to raise his profile in the party.

KELLY: Well, and I'm trying to figure out, why is Governor DeSantis submitting this map anyway? Isn't that usually the state legislature's job to draw and adopt new congressional maps?

ALLEN: Right, exactly. Well, Republicans did draw up districts - district maps that, at first, made relatively modest changes from the ones that were adopted several years ago that were approved by the courts. But Governor DeSantis told them he was going to veto them, and he did. He vetoed those maps. He then called lawmakers back for a special session, where they took up his maps and speedily approved them with no changes, really. Republican lawmakers felt like they had little choice but to give in to the governor's strong-arm tactics. Here's Republican state Senator Kelli Stargel, who was on the floor speaking about this last week.

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KELLI STARGEL: These are constitutional maps. I think they're very thoughtful. I don't think any of us who vote for them today are racist. We're following the direct will of the governor.

ALLEN: But Republican lawmakers know that this is setting the table for a long, expensive series of lawsuits and put aside $1 million to start the paying for this litigation.

KELLY: And how are they responding just when asked about these charges that these maps, according to Democrats and others, violate federal and state protections for minority voters?

ALLEN: Well, DeSantis claims that times have changed, that discrimination against Black people at the polls is no longer the problem that it once was. He gets some support for his position from federal court rulings in recent years that have weakened the Federal Voting Rights Act. But it's a controversial stance, of course. I asked Cecile Scoon about that. She's a Black civil rights attorney and the head of Florida's League of Women Voters. That's one of the groups that's challenging the new maps. She cited a recent decision by federal Judge Mark Walker. He struck down new voting restrictions and found that they had been part of a pattern here in Florida.

CECILE SCOON: Judge Walker literally found that the Republican Party, for the last 20 years, has intentionally discriminated against African American voters.

ALLEN: The judge ordered that, because of this past pattern, Florida would have to get court approval for any new voting laws for the next 10 years here in Florida. And that order has been appealed.

KELLY: It's been appealed. All right. Well, so I was going to ask, what's next? We just have about 30 seconds. But could a court overturn all this, order new maps?

ALLEN: Well, that's what the voting rights groups are hoping for with this lawsuit. But the clock's ticking. We have a mid-June filing deadline for Congress here in Florida. The lawsuit was filed in state court. It will eventually be heard by the state Supreme Court. It could then be appealed to the federal courts. It could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And in another case recently, the Supreme Court said that a mapping challenge in Alabama would be used in this election because drawing new ones would cause, quote, "chaos and confusion."

KELLY: That is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you, Greg.

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

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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.