The special redistricting session held by the Legislature lasted just five days, but the two-year battle over the boundaries of the state’s 27 congressional districts seems to be far from over.
Voting-rights groups who sued to get the original map overturned say the new plan, approved Monday on nearly party-line votes in the House and Senate, isn’t enough of an improvement for Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to sign off on it. And there’s still no clarity on whether an election that is already underway in some counties will be delayed.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said Tuesday that the map passed by the Legislature this week “looks suspiciously like” the blueprint that Lewis tossed in July. Lewis ruled two congressional districts approved by lawmakers in 2012 violated anti-gerrymandering standards that voters added to the Florida Constitution in 2010.
“We don’t believe the (new) maps comply with the criteria the judge laid out,” Macnab said.
She wouldn’t comment specifically on whether Lewis should redraw the districts, as some critics of the map have suggested. But she also made it clear that the league believes lawmakers have had several chances to draw a map correctly.
“The Legislature’s already had one opportunity to comply with the amendments,” Macnab said. “This was their second chance.”
During the debate over the map Monday, Democrats were less restrained. Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said he hoped that Lewis wouldn’t give the Republican-controlled Legislature a third chance to craft districts if he strikes down the new map.
“I hope he decides to do it, or at least have an impartial panel do it,” Waldman said. “Because the fact is that this map has been tainted from the beginning.”
Lewis is supposed to hold another hearing Aug. 20 on the map and a proposed schedule for a possible special election. Even if he decides to uphold the new plan, Lewis could delay voting in the seven congressional districts affected by the changes to the map. Republicans have opposed any plan to change the election dates, saying tens of thousands of Floridians have already cast absentee ballots in the Aug. 26 primaries. Also, early voting has started in some counties.
And if Lewis rules in favor of the Legislature on all counts, the plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit could appeal.
In his initial ruling last month, Lewis said lawmakers put too many African-American voters in Congressional District 5, currently represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in an apparent effort to channel those Democratic-leaning voters away from surrounding districts.
The judge also found fault with an appendage of white voters added onto Congressional District 10, now represented by Republican Congressman Dan Webster. Lewis said the voters were placed in Webster’s district to try to help the incumbent hold onto his seat.
Because all congressional districts must have roughly equal populations, lawmakers Monday evened out the numbers by shifting the boundaries of five other seats.
For now, GOP lawmakers say they’re waiting for Lewis’ final ruling. Speaking to reporters after the session ended Monday night, Senate President Don Gaetz didn’t rule out appealing if Lewis rules against the Legislature, but said he didn’t think it would be necessary.
“We place our trust and confidence in his judgment,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “I don’t believe that there’s going to be any need or reason to appeal. It is (neither) Speaker Weatherford’s nor my desire to spend more time, more money and more energy on litigation. “