Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through a new congressional map that aggressively favored his own party and significantly reduced the voting power of the state’s Black residents. On Tuesday, ProPublica published a report on how that map was devised, citing records obtained by American Oversight as well as other reporting that revealed the governor’s office had worked with consultants connected to the national Republican Party — a potential violation of the state’s constitution.
In late 2021, DeSantis rejected congressional maps drawn by the state legislature and proposed a new version that would remove half of Florida’s primarily Black districts and provide a substantial advantage to Republicans. DeSantis’ office collaborated with the national GOP’s top redistricting lawyer and other partisan-oriented consultants, and in doing so “appears to have misled the public and the state legislature and may also have violated Florida law” prohibiting partisan-driven redistricting, reported ProPublica.
Records obtained by American Oversight and cited by ProPublica include an email from Jan. 5 inviting top officials in DeSantis’ office to join a “Florida Redistricting Kick-off Call” with out-of-state operatives who, as reported by ProPublica, “had also been working with states across the country to help the Republican Party create a favorable election map.”
The invitation was sent to DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Alex Kelly, and two other aides, as well as Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election attorney and redistricting strategist, and strategist Thomas Bryan.
Torchinsky, a partner at a conservative law firm, has according to ProPublica represented the Republican National Committee, the Florida GOP, and several right-wing groups, such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. Invoices ProPublica obtained from the Florida Department of State show that Torchinsky spent more than 100 hours working for the DeSantis administration on redistricting, with his role appearing “to have been intimate and extensive.”
Bryan has been active in other states as well, including in Texas, where he helped draw maps that the U.S. Department of Justice said violate the Voting Rights Act, and in Virginia, where Republicans submitted his name as one of three candidates to work on the state’s redistricting. He was disqualified last November by the state Supreme Court, which said it had “concerns about” his and the other candidates’ ability to do the job. Bryan had also been paid a $20,000 consulting fee by the Virginia Senate’s Republican caucus in September 2021.
“There’s a core group of attorneys that works with the party and then they work with specific states,” Bryan told ProPublica. “It’s not a coincidence that I worked on Texas, Florida, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama.”
Another email obtained by American Oversight shows that Torchinsky helped DeSantis’ staff select an expert witness for a February hearing on redistricting before the state legislature. In the email, DeSantis’ general counsel asked the potential witness to explain to the state House’s redistricting committee why retaining the state’s 5th Congressional District — which was created in 2015 by the state Supreme Court and in which 46.5 percent of voters are Black — would “likely violate the U.S. Constitution” as a “racial gerrymander,” and copied Torchinsky, who joined a call with the witness in advance of his appearance, according to the records.
In April, DeSantis signed the new map into law, immediately facing several lawsuits from civil and voting rights organizations. Ongoing challenges are active in state and federal courts, but DeSantis’ map is set to be used in the November election. The new map could increase the number of Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation from 16 to 20 of the state’s now 28 seats. As of this month, DeSantis’ office is fighting to prevent the release of related documents to plaintiffs in one of those challenges.