By Zac Anderson and Mark Harper, Tallahassee Democrat
TALLAHASSEE, FL — The Florida House of Representatives floor last week resembled a scene reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with Black lawmakers staging a sit-in and singing “We Shall Overcome”.
The demonstration was triggered by new congressional district lines, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that wipe away districts designed to help elect Black lawmakers. Ignoring the protests, the Republican-majority Legislature quickly passed the new redistricting map.
Jacksonville state Rep. Angie Nixon, a Black Democrat who led the protest, predicted the redistricting issue would galvanize Black voters come November.
The new redistricting map could motivate the Black community to seek political revenge on Election Day against DeSantis, although Black voters historically haven’t had enough political clout to swing a governor’s race, which may be emboldening the governor.
Black political power in Florida is evident in the community’s increased representation in Congress, the Florida Legislature and local offices over the last 30 years, but the state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Lawton Chiles in the mid-1990s.
Black voters, who include a significant number of naturalized immigrants from the Caribbean, represented only 13.4% of the state’s registered voters in 2020 and cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.
Turnout among Black voters jumped to 47% in 2018 when Democrat Andrew Gillum, the Black former mayor of Tallahassee, lost to DeSantis following a nation-ally watched recount. But white voter turnout increased even more, to 57%. Hispanic voter turnout was 44%
In 2014, Black voter turn-out was 44% — compared to 47.5% for whites and 36% for Hispanics — when Democrat Charlie Crist lost in another close governor’s race to Republican Rick Scott, according to an Associated Press analysis.
This election cycle, DeSantis seems to be doing everything possible to give Black voters additional motivation.
Racial issues have permeated the governor’s agenda, starting with a bill targeting protesters in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 and continuing this year with DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE” Act, which puts new limits on how schools and businesses can approach racial issues. It was signed into law Friday.
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What does DeSantis redistricting map do?
Pushing a redistricting plan that takes away the ability of Black voters to elect Black candidates may be the most direct challenge yet to Florida’s Black community by DeSantis, who was accused of employing a racially charged dog whistle during his first campaign when he told voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his Black opponent.
The governor’s latest foray into racial politics delves into an issue — Black representation in public office — that has a long and painful history.
Florida currently has five Black members of Congress, but for more than 100 years the state had none. That ended in 1992 when congressional districts designed to elected Black lawmakers resulted in Florida’s first Black members of Congress since Reconstruction.
The governors newly passed redistricting maps significantly alter two of those heavily Black seats, spreading out their Black voters. DeSantis defends it as a “race neutral” approach. The governor’s supporters believe Democrats have put too much emphasis on race.
State Rep. Webster Barnaby, the lone Black Republican in the Florida House, said Democrats shouldn’t take Black votes for granted.
“I say that because Black people are not monolithic,” Barnaby said, adding that he sees more Black voters trending Republican. “It’s my opinion the Democratic Party majors in symbolism rather than substance.”
He cites President Joe Biden’s recent nomination of Katanji Brown Jackson, who will become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
“I think that is a dangerous precedent. We have a meritocracy in this great nation,” he said. “There may have been someone else who’s well-qualified. … There may have been a Black male who might be more qualified.”
Critics say DeSantis is turning the clock back to a time when Black political influence was purposely circumscribed.
“We are retrogressing back to the past, and you are allowing that to happen,” Juanita Powell-Williams, an attorney from Jacksonville, told lawmakers as the redistricting bill advanced in the House.
Powell-Williams pledged action. “We’re going to vote and we will remember,” she said.
DeSantis supporters will also remember. His reelection strategy has centered around motivating the GOP base with hot-button bills touching on everything from gender identity and sexual orientation to immigration, abortion and racial issues.
Leaning into “preexisting racial resentments” was an effective strategy for former President Donald Trump and is being replicated by other leading Republicans, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who studies African American politics.
He’s “basically throwing red meat to their base to get them angered and to get them mobilized,” she said.
That could overpower any increase in Black voter turnout this year.
Florida has a large number of Black voters — who lean Democratic. Will they vote?
Even with a motivated voter base of Blacks, progressive whites and Hispanics, Democrats face strong headwinds this year because of President Joe Biden’s low approval rating, concerns about inflation and other issues and midterm election dynamics that typically favor the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
The party’s issues are even greater in Florida, a state that Trump carried twice and has been trending red.
To overcome those odds, Florida Democrats would have to do better than they have in the past with all voters, including whites and Hispanics, but Black voters are a key part of their coalition. In 2018, Gillum won 86% of Black voters, according to exit polls.
Florida Democrats and their allies are hoping to drive a strong turnout among Black voters this year.
“We would hope that the continued attacks by the governor would be enough motivation for people to get out and vote,” said Genesis Robinson, political director for Equal Ground, an Orlando-based voting rights organization. “There’s a sense of urgency of Black voters to get rid of people who would do us harm. We have to do what we have to do, rise to the moment.”
Equal Ground Action already has plans to convert a digital and letter-writing campaign directed at state lawmakers on redistricting into voter outreach efforts in advance of this fall’s elections.
In a conference call Friday after the redistricting map passed, Black lawmakers said the focus now must be on Black voter registration and turnout.
“The fight is not over because we still have our vote and we still have the ballot box,” said state Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead.
And Democrats again have a prominent statewide Black candidate in U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
She could help bring more Black voters to the polls, with Black women an especially key demographic for Democrats.
“There will be some interest in attempting to mobilize around her historic candidacy to try to take advantage of that type of excitement to turn out the vote,” Gillespie said.
Yet 2018 proved that having a Black candidate at the top of a statewide ticket won’t necessarily boost turnout enough to make the difference in a midterm election in Florida.
Gillespie said minority voter turnout hinges not just about motivating voters but doing the “shoe-leather campaigning to touch people to make sure they show up.”
“Minorities tend to receive fewer exhortations to show up to vote. That helps explain why we see differentials in voter turnout rates,” she said.
Nixon is confident the Black vote can be a difference maker this year.
“If Black people turn out, if Black women turn out, we can determine who wins,” she said. “We can push it over the top. If Black voters don’t turn out, Republicans automatically win.”
Capital bureau reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report. Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida redistricting map 2022: Will Black voters fight back at polls?
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