Florida Legislature's Rocket Redistricting Plan

Aaron Deslatte | Orlando Sentinel | 08/04/2014

TALLAHASSEE—The Florida Legislature is preparing a quick-fix this week to remedy its gerrymandered congressional map which would shed the “finger-like appendages” from two Orlando-area districts that a judge found improperly favored Republicans.

And the GOP-led Legislature is also preparing to fight any attempt to move the primary and general election dates, a move which could plunge election officials into a legal quagmire over thousands of already cast absentee ballots.

With primaries three weeks away, Florida’s county election supervisors have already sent overseas military personnel “tens of thousands” of ballots, and more than 1 million absentee ballots in total have been mailed. County election supervisors have suggested those ballots would have to be segregated if the dates are moved. The NAACP has also argued that turnout among African-Americans would plummet in a special election, without traditional election-day voter mobilization efforts.

“We intend to vigorously defend the integrity and validity of Floridians’ votes that have already been cast, and that will be cast in the upcoming election,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in a statement.

On Monday, Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, released a schedule for the special session slated to start Thursday and last until Aug. 15. That’s the deadline Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis set for re-designing new maps that correct partisan-influenced flaws with the Central Florida congressional districts held by Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden.

Both the House and Senate will convene at noon, followed by a joint meeting of the newly re-formed reapportionment committees. They’ll meet again Friday—where they could pass out a revised version of the map. The full House and Senate could follow suit as soon as next Monday.

That quick turnaround suggests they may simply be making minor tweaks to the districts. GOP lawmakers believe Lewis gave them surgical instructions for how to fix the “finger-like appendage” in Brown’s district, as well as a similar shift that moved more white voters into Webster’s seat. Both of those last-minute changes were reasons Lewis cited in his 41-page ruling which found those two districts—but not Florida’s 25 other congressional seats—drawn with improper partisan intent.

“Because the court held intact 25 of the state’s 27 congressional districts as the Legislature drew them, I believe we can and should meet the court’s requirements with minimal impact on the rest of the state,” Gaetz said Monday in a statement.

But GOP leaders pledged to fight any effort to move the election date. The League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause, and other groups who challenged the map in 2012 have argued the dates should be moved back, and the maps needed to be completely overhauled.

Those plaintiffs said Monday “it remains to be seen whether they will produce maps that comply with the constitution.”

“It’s disappointing to see the defendants continue to insist on delaying the restoration of representative democracy,” said Fair Districts coalition lawyer Thomas Zehnder. “Judge Lewis provided strong guidance on the constitutional issues that must be resolved. We can only hope our elected leaders take those concerns seriously and do what is necessary to provide for constitutionally valid elections in 2014.”

Lewis has set an Aug. 20 hearing on when to implement the new map, and ordered elections officials to propose a new election calendar for any impacted congressional seats, in case he rules it is needed.

The Legislature opted not to appeal the court’s order to redraw the map, but has sounded more combative when it comes the dates of the elections.

“I remain firm in my objection to disrupting the 2014 election that is already in progress with overseas military and absentee ballots,” Gaetz said. “I represent uniformed military and their families on five bases and cannot in good conscience allow them to be disenfranchised by disrupting the elections schedule.

“Other than the partisan plaintiffs masquerading as voting rights groups, I can find no one who would want a postponed or special election to leave Florida without representation in Congress for months, weeks or even days.”

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