TALLAHASSEE — The latest twist in Florida’s nationally watched redistricting saga came Friday when the state’s top election official told a judge that special congressional elections can’t be held until next year.
Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in July found two of the state’s 27 congressional districts unconstitutional. As a result, lawmakers held a special session to pass fixes this week that affected seven districts and 25 counties.
As part of the Tallahassee-area judge’s order, Secretary of State Ken Detzner had to propose a special election schedule for districts affected by the changes. In his response, Detzner said it’s not possible to hold those special elections before spring 2015.
“The earliest Tuesday on which a special primary election can be held is March 17, 2015, and the earliest possible date for a special election is May 26, 2015,” read the filing.
In the proposal filed with Lewis, Detzner’s attorneys argue it isn’t possible to hold special elections between the Aug. 26 primary and Nov. 4 general election. Additionally, a primary can’t be held for affected seats on the general election day because it would prompt voter “confusion.”
The department came to this conclusion after consulting with the Florida Association of Supervisors of Election. That group has argued in court and during the special session that it would be difficult to pull off a special election in 2014.
“The supervisors ultimately unanimously concluded that in order to ensure election laws are followed … a special congressional election cannot be comingled with the existing election,” Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, the association’s president, wrote in a statement.
In the proposed plan, J. Andrew Atkinson, an attorney representing the Department of State, said that with all of the basic steps that need to be taken with a special election, it would likely take 147 days to actually hold the special general election, and 191 days to complete the certification process.
Even that schedule, though, “in all likelihood violates federal law requiring that members of Congress elected on Nov. 4, 2014, serve two terms beginning on Jan. 3, 2015,” Atkinson wrote in the court filing.
The schedule includes steps such as mailing absentee ballots, candidate qualifying and time needed to certify signatures submitted by candidates who want to qualify via petition.
Thomas Zehnder, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the map challenge, said they disagree with the state’s timeline and will file a response by noon Monday.
The proposed schedule will be one of a host of items taken up during a hearing in Lewis’ courtroom. He also has to decide whether to accept the redrawn congressional maps.
A coalition of plaintiffs challenging the map argued the version deemed unconstitutional shouldn’t be used for the 2014 midterms, and have pushed for special elections. Attorneys for the Legislature have said the maps should stay in place because a special election would disenfranchise the hundreds of thousands of voters who already have voted by mail, including overseas veterans.
Though seven districts were affected, none see large shifts in how they perform politically. If a district was Republican leaning on the maps passed in 2012, it remains Republican-leaning on the new maps. The same applies for Democratic-leaning seats.
That’s one of the reasons the coalition of plaintiffs and some Democrats have argued Lewis should still toss the maps.
Republicans and attorneys for the Legislature have argued that changing the performance of districts is unconstitutional under the Fair Districts amendments, which are anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state constitution.