Legislature will resume map-drawing on Thursday

Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel | 08/04/2014

TALLAHASSEE—After a court found its congressional map unconstitutional, the Florida Legislature will return for a special session Thursday to try to re-design a compliant plan for voters and avert a delay in this fall’s elections.

House Speaker Will Weatherford said Sunday night that lawmakers would prefer to address Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s “limited concerns” quickly rather than appealing the decision and risking further disruption to an already uncertain election calendar.

Lewis found that the districts of U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, had violated the 2010 Fair Districts standards preventing partisan gerrymandering.

“We continue to maintain our strong objection to any attempt to disrupt the current election process,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in a memo to House members and staff.

“Florida’s Supervisors of Elections have raised serious concerns over changing the elections process at this late date. The NAACP also pointed out in their response to Judge Lewis that, ‘In a special election, get-out-the-vote infrastructure simply does not exist. Voters who face challenges to political participation – be it financial, job scheduling, transportation, or other impediments – will be irreparably harmed by conducting the election at a time where that infrastructure does not exist.’

”Tens of thousands of our service men and women overseas have received their ballots, and over one million absentee ballots have been mailed to Floridians. Members, we intend to vigorously defend the integrity and validity of Floridians’ votes that have already been and will be cast in the upcoming election.”

With primaries set for Aug. 26, Lewis on Friday ordered the Legislature to re-draw the offending districts by Aug. 15, and for state officials to present a plan for moving the elections for the seats to him by Aug. 20 — potentially delaying the primary and Nov. 4 general election to fill a raft of congressional seats.

In July, Lewis wrote a scathing, 41-page decision blasting Republican political operatives for making a “mockery” of Florida’s “non-political” redistricting process with a “secret, organized campaign to subvert the supposedly open and transparent redistricting process.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause, and other groups have argued in court filings since 2012 that GOP operatives and lawmakers intentionally conspired to draw maps that continued to deliver a partisan advantage for GOP candidates.

Brown’s district was singled out by Lewis because legislative staff—former GOP operatives—had amended it late in the process to boost the black voting-age population above 50 percent, a move that made surrounding GOP congressional seats safer. Webster, too, had gotten a boost of white voters from neighboring Democratic-tilting seats, making his own slightly safer.

Brown has held the seat since it was originally drawn by the courts in the 1990s to reach from Jacksonville to Orlando, scooping up African-American voters in order to comply with federal law and allow minorities the ability to elect a candidate of their choice.

But the congressional map the Legislature adopted in 2012 boosted the African-American voting-age population of Brown’s district above 50 percent for the first time by adding a “finger-like appendage” from the seat being sought by incumbent U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.

In both instances, Lewis found the changes unnecessary, and indicative of a broader strategy by GOP operatives to sneak subtle changes into the plans.

“They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent,” Lewis wrote, by writing scripts for people to use when testifying, and submitting public maps through third-parties.

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