Judge casts doubt about redrawing Florida congressional map this year

George Bennett | Palm Beach Post | 07/24/2014

The judge who declared Florida’s congressional map illegal said Thursday he’s “extremely skeptical” about trying to change districts before the November elections.

Near the end of a three-hour hearing in Tallahassee, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis also expressed doubts about scheduling as many as “a half dozen” special congressional elections in newly drawn districts in northern and central Florida after the Nov. 4 general election.

Lewis said he expects to make a ruling by the end of next week on how and when to fix the congressional map he declared invalid earlier this month.

Lewis ruled July 10 that the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature violated the state constitution by drawing districts to benefit the GOP in 2012.

While declaring the state’s entire 27-district congressional map invalid, Lewis singled out two districts — a Jacksonville-to-Orlando seat held by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown and a Central Florida seat held by Republican Rep. Daniel Webster — as unconstitutional and in need of change.

Fixing those districts will require changes to several neighboring districts. Eight districts actually touch one or the other of those two districts.

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said she doesn’t believe the four U.S. House districts that include parts of Palm Beach County will be affected.

“I wouldn’t expect it to reach here because it’s so far north of us we’re just hopeful it won’t impact any of the precincts that would affect our congressional districts,” Bucher said.

The challenge to the congressional map was filed by a coalition of groups that includes the League of Women Voters. The coalition asked Lewis this week to draw a new map and push back the Aug. 26 primary and Nov. 4 general election by a few weeks to accommodate the changes.

Alternatively, if the elections can’t be scheduled in 2014, the coalition said Lewis should set special congressional elections in early 2015.

At Thursday’s hearing, attorneys for the Florida Legislature and Secretary of State Ken Detzner argued that changing congressional election dates while proceeding with other elections would confuse voters and overburden elections officials already dealing with the regularly scheduled 2014 races. Some military and overseas voters have already cast primary ballots, they noted.

Duval County Elections Supervisor Jerry Holland testified that once new districts are drawn, his office would need about 30 days to “geocode” the information so voters could be told which district they live in and where to vote.

After hearing arguments, Lewis sounded unlikely to order the quick fix sought by the plaintiffs.

“I’m extremely skeptical that I can do what the plaintiffs want me to do. One, I don’t know that I have the resources to draw a map…in a very short time,” Lewis said.

One option suggested by the plaintiffs is to hold a special primary in January and general election in March for the redrawn congressional districts.

Lewis, who said he was “just talking off the top of my head,” raised concerns about having regular congressional elections in November and then new ones a few months later.

“It would have to be a special election to finish out a term that somebody else had been elected to under a map that’s been ruled unconstitutional. So you would have the problem of maybe a half dozen districts are affected. You have to have new races. But then if voters are moved, a voter that elected a representative under the old map may be voting for a new representative and so they’ve elected one and now they’re going to elect two. Or you may be moved out of one and not have a chance to vote on either one,” Lewis said.


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