Lawmakers to vote on new districts today

( - Florida legislators return to the Capitol today for a vote on hastily patched-up congressional districts, to be reviewed by the judge who ruled last month that Republican leaders illegally rigged political boundaries to favor their party.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, along with some voters who successfully challenged the alignment of the state's 27 congressional district in court, are not satisfied with the remapping plans approved by House and Senate committees on Friday. The committees principally revised the districts of U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, with the population impact of those changes rippling through five neighboring districts.

The House and Senate have floor debate scheduled today and could approve the plan quickly by moving it to final passage and ending the session. If opponents object to second and third reading on the same day, legislators could take the final vote Tuesday – which would have no impact on the outcome.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who ruled July 10 that legislative leaders "made a mockery" of the constitutional requirement of non-partisan apportionment, ordered the Legislature to present revised districts to him by next Friday. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called the special session, convening on Thursday for the sole purpose of fixing the district maps.

The "Fair Districts Florida" constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010 over strenuous opposition by Republican legislative leaders, forbid consideration of party affiliation or incumbency-protection in drawing district boundaries. The edicts require districts to be compact, respect city and county lines as much as possible and not diminish the likelihood that minority voters can elect candidates of their choosing.

Testimony in a two-week trial before Lewis last spring revealed that Republican campaign consultants discussed the placement of lines with legislative staff. There were disappearing email messages and Republican-only strategy sessions, with some GOP consultants seeing proposed maps days or weeks before they became public. The resulting congressional maps, for a state in which Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans, produced a Florida delegation in Washington with 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Gaetz and Weatherford, who chaired the redistricting committees before becoming presiding officers of the Legislature, insisted the process was open and honest. They decided not to appeal Lewis' ruling but asked that the state be allowed to conduct the Aug. 26 primaries with the existing boundaries — since thousands of overseas ballots have already been returned by military members, and absentees have gone out to voters across Florida.

But the plaintiffs argued that conducting the 2014 elections with the illegal 2012 lines would amount to rewarding GOP legislative leaders for cheating. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters submitted a redistricting plan for Lewis to consider, widely different from the plan approved in committees last Friday.

The focal point of the lawsuit and legislative hearings has been Brown's heavily black district, which extends from Jacksonville to Orlando, via Gainesville, embracing several black precincts. Webster's nearby Republican district is heavily white. Lewis ruled that legislators packed black voters into Brown's district, removing them from adjoining congressional tracts and making them more amenable for conservative Republicans.

Common Cause and the League proposed a more compact minority-access district in Central Florida, which could reduce Webster's chances of re-election. But the proposal would move Brown's district from a roughly vertical path to an east-west configuration running below the Georgia line from Jacksonville to Chattahoochee — splitting Leon County.

Having been rejected in committee last week, along with a Democratic alternative that would have affected only three districts, the Common Cause-League plan has no real chance of passage on the House or Senate floor. But it will be presented to Lewis in an Aug. 20 hearing he has set for arguments on whatever the Legislature produces this week.

Another issue before the courts will be the Republicans' desire to run this year's elections with the current district boundaries — or to order special congressional elections with newly approved lines. The county supervisors of elections have warned that rescheduling a qualifying period, primaries and a special general election would be difficult to administer and confusing for voters.


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