Gov. DeSantis sets elections for legislative seats — after months of delays and a lawsuit

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Gov. Ron DeSantis delayed setting special elections for three soon-to-be-vacant seats in the state Legislature — unilaterally imposing a monthslong delay — almost guaranteeing that three Democratic districts in South Florida will go unrepresented during the 2022 lawmaking session.

The districts in question — a Broward state Senate and state House seat and a Palm Beach County state House seat — are overwhelmingly Democratic. The three districts are home to a large number of Black voters, and people currently holding the three offices are all Black.

The lawsuit “forced the governor’s hand to carry out the duties of his office,” Theresa Lee, the election law clinic’s litigation director, said by email. But DeSantis has set the special election dates far in the future — Jan. 11 primary and March 8 general election — which Lee said “could leave these districts without representation for almost the whole of the 2022 legislative session,” adding that the situation is “a slap in the face of voters of color.”

By waiting so long after learning about the vacancies — which became official in July — and setting special election dates next year, critics fear that three fewer Democrats will be in Tallahassee for the start of the annual session on Jan. 11.

The seats likely will remain vacant through the end of the Florida’s legislative session on March 11, while lawmakers craft a state budget, consider strict limits on access to abortions and change the boundaries of all congressional and legislative districts.

DeSantis’ delay stands in contrast to how governors have called special elections in just a matter of days.

The Harvard Election Law Clinic examined the 65 vacancies from 1999 through 2020. It took an average of 7.6 days for a governor to call special elections to fill those seats. In 25 cases, special elections were called in fewer than five days — including two called that quickly by DeSantis.

When a white Republican legislator announced his pending vacancy in 2019, DeSantis called a special election on the same day. In 2020 another white Republican lawmaker made an announcement, and DeSantis called a special election two days later.

As of Thursday, the resignations creating the three vacancies were submitted at least 88 days ago. Resign-to-run resignations are irrevocable.

Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, of Plantation, decried the governor’s delay.

“The strength of any democracy is the ability for voters to be represented and heard. Sadly, the Governor has chosen to deny voters in Senate District 33 and House Districts 88 and 94 their constitutional right to be represented in Tallahassee during the 2022 Legislative Session. No Floridians’ vote or voice should ever be silenced,” Book said in a statement on Thursday.

Asked why the governor set the dates now and not earlier, and about assertions that the actions were aimed at keeping Democratic seats vacant, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said Thursday the governor had fulfilled his responsibilities.

“By scheduling special elections for the vacancies in the Florida Legislature, the Governor has fulfilled his constitutional and statutory duties related to the vacancies,” Pushaw said by email.

Multiple Democrats have said the reason for DeSantis’ delays is simple: He wanted to maximize the advantage enjoyed by his fellow Republicans who control the Florida Legislature.

The vacancies happened because under the state’s resign-to-run law, state Sen. Perry Thurston and state Reps. Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy were required to resign from their current jobs to in order to be candidates to fill the vacancy created by the April 6 death of the late Congressman Alcee Hastings.

They all submitted irrevocable resignations that coincide with the general special election for the congressional seat, scheduled for Jan. 11.

It’s the second time DeSantis delayed calling special elections in a manner that put Democrats at a disadvantage. After Hastings’ death, he ordered the special primary for the congressional seat for Nov. 2 and the general election for Jan. 11, meaning it will remain vacant for more than nine months.

That’s far longer than other governors, including DeSantis and other Republicans, have taken to call special elections to fill vacancies. This delay was widely seen as a move by DeSantis — a potential 2024 presidential candidate — to curry favor with the base of the Republican Party by keeping a Democratic vote out of Washington, D.C. and making it harder for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation.

During the summer, South Florida elections officials, Black community leaders and Democratic activists implored DeSantis to use the same dates, Nov. 2 and Jan. 11, for the special legislative primaries and elections. That would ensure full South Florida representation in Tallahassee when the annual session begins on Jan. 11.

With the legislative session ending March 11, the new state lawmakers might not be sworn in, as election results normally wouldn’t be certified by then.

It is theoretically possible for new lawmakers to take office earlier, if the contests feature only Democrats. Without opposition, the primary winners would become new state legislators. Anyone who wanted to prevent that could easily become a write-in candidate, foreclosing that possibility.

On Oct. 15, voters and the Harvard Election Law Clinic sued DeSantis over the delay in setting the legislative elections. The lawsuit implored a judge to order DeSantis to comply with the portion of Florida law that says the governor “shall” call elections to fill vacancies.

By not having the legislative primaries and general elections on the same dates as the congressional voting, Lee said it “shows that Governor DeSantis does not have respect for the statutory scheme the legislature laid out many years ago or for Florida voters. We are considering all possible routes for further relief.”

Plaintiff Don Mizell of Fort Lauderdale, whose uncle, the late Dr. Von D. Mizell, was a pioneering leader in the Black community, said when the case was filed that the delay was “a nakedly political, shameless move on the part of the governor.

“And it’s strictly designed to undermine the strength of the Black voters in this state, whenever he can, or however he can, by hook or by crook, pursuant to his aspirations to be the next Donald Trump.”

Aside from the three South Florida state legislative seats, the longest delay in calling a special election was the 30 days DeSantis took to call a special election to fill the vacancy created by Hastings’ death.

Five days later, DeSantis set the special election congressional election dates. With the congressional dates, he built in months of extra time before letting voters fill the vacancies.

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Democrats have been raising concerns about DeSantis’ inaction on the legislative elections for months.

One, Elijah Manley, a candidate for the state House seat currently held by DuBose, helped spur the lawsuit.

In early October he tweeted his concern, calling the DeSantis delay “unconstitutional, undemocratic, and [it] cannot stand.” Manley said the tweet ultimately made its way to the Harvard Election Law Clinic, which reached out to him.

Manley helped connect the Harvard group with the plaintiffs.

He said the latest development means “democracy prevailed in the state of Florida. After shamelessly delaying a free and fair election, the governor has called the special election. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the Harvard Election Law Clinic and all those who stood up against tyrannical behavior.”

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