TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA (Oct. 9, 2023) – As Common Cause et al. v. Byrd reached its conclusion this week, experts and advocates conveyed a singular message: the 2022 congressional redistricting process was the product of deliberate, intentional discrimination against Black voters in North Florida.
Southern Coalition for Social Justice and co-counsel presented several witnesses before the three-judge panel, who continued to build upon previous testimony from individual plaintiffs and a historian expert describing the impacts of the destruction of Benchmark Congressional District 5, or Benchmark CD 5, and Florida’s long history of discriminatory voting practices that have denied Black voters the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
On Monday, Oct. 2, the proceedings began with Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, who also served as a member of the House Redistricting Committee. Chris Shenton, Equal Justice Works Fellow for SCSJ, elicited testimony from Leader Driskell about how the 2022 redistricting process was a “farce” and an unprecedented deviation from the normal procedures – including not holding a public roadshow to receive public feedback on the maps created. Driskell said the legislature’s leadership yielded to the pressure placed on them by Governor Ron DeSantis.
“When the Governor introduced his map, we just kept on business as usual, and when the Governor kept pushing, they tried to provide that two-map alternative, you know, legislating in the alternative to try to satisfy him.,” Driskell said. “But in the end, they knew that that was not a compliant legal theory…Once he got involved, they ultimately acquiesced to his pressure.”
Leader Driskell’s testimony concluded with a statement reflecting the failure of the Florida Legislature because it “[…] passed a map that it knew would silence Black voices and Black voters [denying] them the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”
Later, Cynthia Slater, Civic Engagement Leader for the NAACP Florida State Conference, spoke about the NAACP’s work to promote and protect the rights of Black voters through the democratic process. She also described the discrimination and violence against people affiliated with the NAACP, including the horrific murder of civil rights activists Harry T. and Harriet V. Moore.
The judges also heard from Dr. Matt Barreto, an expert witness on district mapping analysis and racially polarized voting. He spoke at length about the unique nature of Benchmark CD 5, as it not only served as a district where Black voters could elect their representative of choice, but it brought together communities dealing with higher rates of poverty and lower household income than any other district- a fact that has not been replicated by any of the districts that have replaced Benchmark CD 5.
Barreto also pointed out the “extreme inconsistency” in DeSantis’ criticism of Benchmark CD 5 when compared to similar districts.
“The state of Florida is picking and choosing different and inconsistent standards when deciding which district boundaries to oppose or support,” Barreto wrote in his report.
On Tuesday, the trial concluded with three of the defense’s witnesses. Dr. Douglas Johnson and Dr. Mark Owens were offered as experts on map drawing and redistricting, respectively. However, evidence showed that both have only served as experts in redistricting a limited number of times in the past. Johnson did not dispute the testimony of Baretto with respect to either of the plans considered by the Legislature, and said he did not perform any analyses to see if a Black opportunity district could have been drawn in in Northern Florida.
Owens also did not perform the necessary analysis for the maps, and agreed that the shared interests of the Black voters in Northern Florida make them a community of interest.
The judges also heard from Alex Kelly, DeSantis’ Deputy Chief of Staff in the 2022 redistricting process, who also testified on the first day of the trial. Throughout the day, the testimony of all three witnesses made it clear that the drawing of Congressional CD 5 prioritized compactness and other factors over the Fair Districts Amendment’s Tier I criteria protecting minority voting power – an act that is in violation of the Florida State Constitution. By Kelly’s own admission, the Fair Districts Amendment would have required a protected Black district in Northern Florida if the proper legal analysis was done- Kelly never did this analysis.
The three-judge panel indicated they would make a ruling by the end of the year.