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After waiting months for Gov. Ron DeSantis to set special elections to fill looming vacancies in three South Florida state legislative districts, voters are going to court, asking a judge to order the governor to act.
The three districts are overwhelmingly Democratic. The Republican governor’s decision not to order the special elections makes it almost certain there will be three fewer Democratic lawmakers during the 2022 legislative session — and residents will go without representation in Tallahassee as the next state budget is crafted and political power carved up through redistricting.
“This is 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,” said Don Mizell of Fort Lauderdale, one of the plaintiffs.
Almost half the voters in each of the three districts are Black.
“The fact that he’s willing to abuse his discretion in such a way does not reflect well on his ethics,” Mizell said, adding that DeSantis “is fully aware of what he is doing and the questionable legality — if only because he’s a Harvard-trained lawyer. So am I. I know that he knows better.”
The Mizell name is significant in Broward County history. The plaintiff is a nephew of the late Dr. Von D. Mizell, the first Black surgeon in South Florida, founder of the Broward chapter of the NAACP, and leader of the wade-ins that led to the desegregation of Fort Lauderdale beaches.
Don Mizell, a lawyer and music and entertainment producer, is a former member of the Florida Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The case against DeSantis was filed Friday in Leon County Circuit Court by the Harvard Election Law Clinic, on behalf of Mizell and three other Broward and Palm Beach County voters. The Florida attorney is Angelo Marino Jr. of Fort Lauderdale.
The lawsuit asks a judge to compel DeSantis to comply with the portion of Florida law that says the governor “shall” call elections to fill vacancies. “There really is no wiggle room,” said Theresa Lee, the election law clinic’s litigation director.
“If Governor DeSantis refuses to call these elections, the voters are being prohibited from voting,” Lee said. “That just completely strikes at the heart of our system of representative government.”
DeSantis is keeping these seats open far longer than any other governor in the last two decades.
The Harvard Election Law Clinic’s 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.
“We thought it paramount to help stop such a blatant violation of the rights of Black voters,” Lee said.
Lee said when a white legislator announced his pending vacancy in 2019, DeSantis called a special election on the same day. In 2020, a white lawmaker made an announcement and DeSantis called a special election three days later.
Nicholas Warren, a voting rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, wrote last month on Twitter that former Gov. Rick Scott set special elections an average of 8.5 days after a vacancy, former Gov. Charlie Crist 6.5 days, and former Gov. Jeb Bush 7.5 days.
As of Thursday, the resignations creating the three vacancies, all effective Jan. 10 or Jan. 11, were all submitted at least 75 days ago.
“By failing to call the special elections for these districts, Governor DeSantis is failing to live up to the responsibilities of his office,” Lee said.
The three seats are currently occupied but will become vacant. That’s because state law required state Reps. Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy and state Sen. Perry Thurston to submit irrevocable resignations from their current jobs representing parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties so they could qualify as candidates to fill the congressional vacancy left by the death of the late Congressman Alcee Hastings.
Multiple South Florida leaders asked the governor to schedule them on the same dates as the Nov. 2 special congressional primary and Jan. 11 special general election. They said that timing would save government election costs, money, give people more than one race to vote on at a time, and ensure the legislative vacancies would be filled for the upcoming legislative session.
Given that DeSantis has done nothing so far, Elijah Manley is concerned that the residents of the three South Florida districts will have no representation during the 2022 session, scheduled for Jan. 11 to March 11.
Manley is a candidate for the Broward House District 94 seat soon to be vacated by DuBose. He’s been outspoken in his frustration over the delay and was involved in bringing people together to file the court case. He said South Florida residents shouldn’t suffer without representation because of what DeSantis is doing.
And, he warned the impact could last into the future because next year the Legislature will redraw the boundaries for U.S. House, state Senate and state House districts to account for population changes uncovered in the 2020 Census. Those districts will stay in place for 10 years.
“It never should have been drawn out,” Manley said. “He’s always pushing boundaries and defying political norms, more than other governors.”
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.
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But he added an unusually long delay, setting the special primary election in the Broward-Palm Beach county 20th Congressional District for Nov. 2, and the general election for Jan. 11.
Under the DeSantis timetable, the Hastings vacancy is remaining open for more than six months after his death. Special elections to fill two other vacancies in the last 12 years have been held more quickly, minimizing the length of time voters go without representation.
The district Hastings represented is so Democratic that the next member of Congress is all-but-guaranteed to be a Democrat. Multiple Democrats have said the only reason for the DeSantis delay is to keep one less Democratic vote in the House of Representatives, making it harder for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation.
DeSantis, who has been courting former President Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters, is widely seen as a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Anything that foils Pelosi is seen as a big plus by the Republican Party’s base.