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Redistricting Clash Heats Up as Hearing Approaches

July 22, 2014 - 6:00pm

Voting-rights advocates and the Legislature squabbled Wednesday about when the state's congressional elections should be held as both sides prepared for a hearing in front of a Leon County judge.

The scuffle started when a coalition of voting-rights groups filed a brief calling for Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who earlier this month ruled that the current congressional districts violated the state Constitution, to draw the boundaries himself and schedule an election that could be delayed until December.

Lewis is set to consider what to do about the map during a hearing Thursday.

The coalition, which includes organizations like the League of Women Voters of Florida, asked Lewis to either go ahead with the November elections after drawing a new map or delay the elections until December. If the November elections are held under the existing map, the state should hold a separate, special election as soon as March to choose members of Congress under new lines, the groups said.

They also asked Lewis to draw a new map instead of allowing the Legislature to do it.

"The citizens of Florida have already endured elections under gerrymandered districts after the Legislature blatantly disregarded their will," the groups' lawyers said in a filing. "Legislative defendants have expended considerable taxpayer money to resist public scrutiny and defend their unconstitutional conduct. Floridas voters should not have to wait for two more years for constitutional elections, and they certainly should not have to sit by as legislative defendants risk additional elections under an invalid congressional plan."

Lewis' ruling earlier this month found fault with districts represented by Jacksonville Democrat Corrine Brown and Winter Garden Republican Daniel Webster.

The coalition floated an alternative map that would dramatically redraw Brown's district, which winds from Jacksonville to Orlando. Under the proposal filed Wednesday, the district would run from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west. That would require several districts across the state to be redrawn to make sure all districts have roughly equal population.

Three of the five proposed alternative schedules for voting would force the state to apply for a waiver to a federal law requiring that state send military absentee ballots to military service members at least 45 days before the election. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, seized on that when responding to the filing.

"We are very concerned about the timetables the plaintiffs have outlined, particularly the fact that they would violate federal laws protecting the voting rights of men and women who risk their lives to serve our country abroad," Weatherford and Gaetz said in a joint statement. "We were surprised that the League of Women Voters would approve of their attorneys presenting an elections timetable that could abridge the voting rights of men and women serving in our military."

David King, a lawyer for the voting-rights groups, responded with a statement of his own, pointing out that waivers are allowed under federal law and that lawmakers were simply trying to avoid dealing with the fallout from Lewis' ruling.

"If the Legislature has its way, all Floridians will be denied the right to vote on constitutional maps," he said. "Legislative leaders clearly made their accusations without fully reading our proposals. In doing so, they continue to show they will grasp at any excuse to keep the citizens of Florida from having legitimate representation."

Lawmakers also fought back in court. Attorneys for the state filed a motion late Wednesday ripping the voting-rights organizations' proposals and saying that the coalition's filing was too late and should be ignored.

"The immediate, lawless actions that plaintiffs urge are directly opposed to the sensible principles that courts in redistricting cases have followed for more than 50 years," attorneys wrote. " ... Under the Federal Due Process Clause, defendants are entitled to an opportunity to be heard on adequate notice, and object to plaintiffs political gamesmanship and improper ambush tactics."

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