TALLAHASSEE – A Florida judge is being asked to move this year’s election dates - including postponing next month’s primary - in order to draw up new congressional districts for the state.
The request was filed today by a coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, who successfully challenged Florida’s current congressional map. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled earlier this month that the state Legislature illegally drew the districts in 2012 to primarily benefit the Republican Party.
Florida legislative leaders have said they will change the districts, but they want to wait until after the November elections to avoid disruption and problems at the polls. More than 1 million absentee ballots for the Aug. 26 primary went out this week.
David King, an attorney representing the League, argued in court papers that the Legislature has forfeited its right to draw the new districts and that it’s wrong to hold another election with an unconstitutional map. Instead the group wants Lewis to adopt a new map they filed, or use an independent expert to craft one.
King wrote that allowing legislators to “devise their own remedy for their own misconduct” would provide “the Legislature with yet another opportunity to violate the people’s trust.”
“If legislative defendants are allowed to once again avoid constitutional constraints that the voters have placed upon them, it will be a stain on the state of Florida and engender even greater public mistrust in elected officials,” King wrote.
In order to make sure there is time to put the new districts in place this year, the coalition presented several proposals to postpone the Aug. 26 primary to Sept. 30 or even later. Some of the proposed calendars also called for pushing back the Nov. 4 general election to December. Another alternative is to hold a new round of congressional elections early next year.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a joint statement criticizing the motion filed by the groups, saying it could disenfranchise overseas and military voters. Normally overseas ballots are sent out 45 days ahead of the election. The proposal submitted by the groups would in some cases cut that to 28 days or 31 days.
“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,” said the statement from Gaetz and Weatherford.
But King, in a statement, said the state can get waivers from some of the timelines. He said it was important to make sure people were voting on constitutional maps.
“Legislative leaders clearly made their accusations without fully reading our proposals,” said King. “In doing so, they continue to show they will grasp at any excuse to keep the citizens of Florida from having legitimate representation.”
Lewis is scheduled to hold a hearing on Thursday to consider what to do next.
In 2010, the state’s voters adopted “Fair Districts” amendments to the state constitution saying legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that two districts violated the new standards. One is the sprawling territory stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando that’s home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown. The other is a central Florida district that is home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.
The new map presented by the League and other groups would completely shift Brown’s district to north Florida so that instead of running down the middle of the state it would stretch from Jacksonville all the way to Gadsden County just west of Tallahassee.