Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was incensed. Late last year, the state’s Republican legislature had drawn congressional maps that largely kept districts intact, leaving the GOP with only a modest electoral advantage.
DeSantis threw out the legislature’s work and redrew Florida’s congressional districts, making them far more favorable to Republicans. The plan was so aggressive that the Republican-controlled legislature balked and fought DeSantis for months. The governor overruled lawmakers and pushed his map through.
DeSantis’ office has publicly stressed that partisan considerations played no role and that partisan operatives were not involved in the new map.
A ProPublica examination of how that map was drawn — and who helped decide its new boundaries — reveals a much different origin story. The new details show that the governor’s office appears to have misled the public and the state legislature and may also have violated Florida law.
DeSantis aides worked behind the scenes with an attorney who serves as the national GOP’s top redistricting lawyer and other consultants tied to the national party apparatus, according to records and interviews.
Florida’s constitution was amended in 2010 to prohibit partisan-driven redistricting, a landmark effort in the growing movement to end gerrymandering as an inescapable feature of American politics.
Barbara Pariente, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who retired in 2019, told ProPublica that DeSantis’ collaboration with people connected to the national GOP would constitute “significant evidence of a violation of the constitutional amendment.”
“If that evidence was offered in a trial, the fact that DeSantis was getting input from someone working with the Republican Party and who’s also working in other states — that would be very powerful,” said Pariente, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democrat Lawton Chiles.
A meeting invite obtained by ProPublica shows that on Jan. 5, top DeSantis aides had a “Florida Redistricting Kick-off Call” with out-of-state operatives. Those outsiders had also been working with states across the country to help the Republican Party create a favorable election map. In the days after the call, the key GOP law firm working for DeSantis logged dozens of hours on the effort, invoices show. The firm has since billed the state more than $450,000 for its work on redistricting.
A week and a half after the call, DeSantis unveiled his new map. No Florida governor had ever pushed their own district lines before. His plan wiped away half of the state’s Black-dominated congressional districts, dramatically curtailing Black voting power in America’s largest swing state.
One of the districts, held by Democrat Al Lawson, had been created by the Florida Supreme Court just seven years before. Stretching along a swath of north Florida once dominated by tobacco and cotton plantations, it had drawn together Black communities largely populated by the descendants of sharecroppers and slaves. DeSantis shattered it, breaking the district into four pieces. He then tucked each fragment away in a majority-white, heavily Republican district.
DeSantis’ strong-arming of his Republican allies was covered extensively by the Florida press. But until now, little has emerged about how the governor crafted his bold move and who his office worked with. To reconstruct DeSantis’ groundbreaking undertaking, ProPublica interviewed dozens of consultants, legislators and political operatives and reviewed thousands of pages of documents obtained through public records requests and from the nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight….
n early January, DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Alex Kelly, was quietly assigned to oversee a small team that would devise an alternative proposal, according to Kelly’s later testimony.
State employees often spend years preparing for the redistricting process — time that DeSantis did not have. As Kelly and his colleagues set to work, they brought in critical help from the D.C. suburbs: Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election attorney and one of the leading GOP strategists for redistricting nationwide.
On Jan. 5, Kelly and two other top DeSantis aides had the redistricting “kick-off call,” according to the meeting invite, which was provided to ProPublica by American Oversight. The invitation included Torchinsky and another guest from out of state: Thomas Bryan, a redistricting specialist.
In an interview with ProPublica, Bryan explained the connection between the national Republican Party and his work with DeSantis. “There’s a core group of attorneys that works with the party and then they work with specific states,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that I worked on Texas, Florida, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama.”
He added that the main lawyer he works with is Torchinsky: “Jason will say, ‘I want you to work on this state.’”
A top partner at a conservative law firm, Torchinsky has represented the RNC, the Republican Party of Florida and many of America’s most influential right-wing groups, such as the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity.
He also occupies a central role in the Republican Party’s efforts to swing Congress in its favor in 2022. Torchinsky is the general counsel and senior advisor to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the entity the Republican National Committee helped set up to manage the party’s redistricting operations….