Florida Democrats say federal elections bill is only option to fight gerrymandering

·6 min read

A group of Florida Democrats arrived in Washington this week to pressure the U.S. Senate and President Joe Biden to act immediately on a sweeping elections bill that would end Florida’s partisan redistricting process currently controlled by Republicans.

But the bill has no apparent pathway for passage in the Senate as the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to release mapping data later this month that kicks off redistricting across the country.

So a half dozen Florida lawmakers gathered outside the U.S. Capitol with 150 state lawmakers from across the country to meet with senators, raise awareness for the bill and march to the White House to urge Biden to scrap the filibuster.

Democrats from Florida and other GOP-controlled states like Texas have seen their legislatures pass bills that impose more requirements on voting after President Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. In July, Texas Democrats fled to Washington until the end of a special legislative session called by their governor to impose more restrictions on voting by mail.

In Florida, legislative rules prevent a similar gambit. Now Florida Democrats worry that the courts, which enabled them to eventually successfully prevail in the fight over the GOP-controlled Legislature’s redistricting plan a decade ago, won’t be on their side.

During his time in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis overhauled the Florida Supreme Court and Republicans maintain control of the Legislature as they prepare to draw congressional boundaries for the next decade.

Senate’s filibuster rule is a key factor

Now, Florida Democrats say their only recourse is a sweeping federal elections law that would require every state to use independent commissions to redraw congressional district lines — but the bill has no chance of passage unless Senate Democrats are willing to blow up the filibuster, a procedural tool that prevents major legislation from passing without 60 votes in the 100-member U.S. Senate.

“We had to go to court to prove they were going around what the voters asked for,” said Miami Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who spoke at a rally alongside the Texas Democrats in self-imposed exile. “We don’t have that court there anymore...so we need a federal law that does what the voters asked us to do in Florida, which is don’t draw the maps towards politicians. I think that’s one of the many issues in this bill but this really is what’s at stake.”

Taddeo and a group of Democratic state legislators in Florida are in Washington this week to pressure the U.S. Senate to act on the elections bill, titled the For The People Act, before senators leave town for the summer recess. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House passed the bill on a near party-line vote in March.

The bill does more than change the redistricting process. It sets national voting standards, changes the composition of the Federal Elections Commission, revamps campaign finance rules and sets new ethics standards for the president and vice president.

But while Taddeo and others rallied outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday with Democratic senators and marched from the African American History Museum to the White House on Wednesday to urge Biden to endorse removing the filibuster, it’s hard to see how their push will succeed in the near term.

Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo speaks during a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo speaks during a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Biden recently called GOP-led voting rights bills, including legislation in Florida that tightens voting rules by limiting the use of drop boxes and requiring voters to annually renew vote-by-mail ballot requests, the “most significant threat to our democracy since the Civil War.” But he also said scrapping the filibuster would “throw Congress into chaos.” Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are opposed to removing the filibuster while a larger group of Democratic senators is undecided.

“It’s our safety net against the Florida Legislature violating the will of the voters once again,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, who spoke at the rally with Taddeo. “It’s elections infrastructure, so to speak, that we’re fighting for. That’s why pushing the U.S. Senate to pass the For The People Act is so important. Florida is the perfect example of what happens if we don’t have federal election standards.”

There’s virtually zero chance of any Senate Republicans supporting the voting rights bill, which was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the bill was unconstitutional and reckless.

“Democrats want unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington to run our elections in Florida,” Rubio said in a statement. “Florida election laws strike a fair balance between accessibility and security, and further involvement from Washington will weaken our elections and make things worse for Florida voters.”

Rubio’s likely challenger in 2022, Central Florida U.S. Rep. Val Demings, supports ending the filibuster to pass a sweeping voting rights bill.

Narrower bill doesn’t deal with gerrymandering

After the For The People Act stalled, Senate Democrats are attempting to pass a narrower bill named after former U.S. representative and civil rights leader John Lewis that would expand the Voting Rights Act. But the narrower legislation, which is supported by every Senate Democrat, doesn’t include nationwide redistricting standards to prevent gerrymandering, when one party redraws district lines for a political benefit.

Democrats agree that passing legislation this month is essential if they want to stop Republican-controlled states from redrawing congressional maps, but the Senate is focused on passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill before it leaves until September. In mid-August, the Census Bureau will release congressional mapping data of all 50 states, which allows redistricting to begin across the country.

Next year, the Florida Legislature will convene to redraw maps for the state Senate, state House and U.S. House. Republican legislators and staffers will have final say on drawing new district lines, which must be passed as legislation and approved by the governor.

A host of Democratic-affiliated groups and non-partisan groups will keep a close eye on the process, which will include one new U.S. House seat due to Florida’s population growth in the previous decade. But because Republicans can pass legislation if they’re united, a court challenge is Democrats’ only recourse if they are unsatisfied with the district lines.

Taddeo, who is considering a run for governor in 2022, and Smith said the Florida Supreme Court is less likely to agree with their objections, based on a fair districts constitutional amendment passed in 2010, if a similar process plays out in 2022 as it did a decade ago.

“The Republicans know they have a Supreme Court that has literally been completely changed by DeSantis and his appointees,” Taddeo said. “Before, when they cheated, they were sued. I think if these non-partisan groups sued them [in 2022], I don’t know what would happen.”

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