By Mary Ellen Klas
Florida legislators indicated Monday that they will meet in special session this week to make the court-ordered repairs to two congressional districts in North and Central Florida but they will not accept holding special elections this year to put them in place.
In a joint email to legislators, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz said they "continue to maintain our strong objection to any attempt to disrupt the current election process." But they also laid out the schedule for the special session they are convening on Thursday in response to an Aug. 15 deadline imposed on them by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.
Lewis ordered lawmakers to revise their congressional redistricting map to fix two districts he had previously ruled unconstitutional, those held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. He wants the Legislature to fix the map to make Brown's snake-shaped district more compact and to remove an appendage in Webster's Central Florida-based district intended to give Republicans an advantage.
He also said he was considering calling a special election after Nov. 4 for candidates in the districts with new boundaries. Voting would proceed normally for all the other races on the ballot.
But legislators want the new districts to take effect in 2016 and said that if Lewis attempts to hold a special election to implement the new boundaries this year, they will oppose it -- potentially challenging his decision in state or federal court.
"Florida's Supervisors of Elections have raised serious concerns over changing the elections process at this late date," wrote Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel and Gaetz, R-Niceville. "The NAACP also pointed out in their motion to Judge Lewis that, 'In a special election, get-out-the-vote infrastructure simply does not exist.' "
Under most scenarios, any changes to Brown and Webster's districts could force changes in surrounding districts held by incumbent U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw, Ted Yoho, Ron DeSantis, John Mica and Bill Posey, all Republicans.
Under a map proposed by the Democrat-leaning voting groups that filed the lawsuit, Brown's district -- which now snakes through North Florida from Jacksonville to Orlando, packing in Democrats and black voters -- would be revised to be primarily a Jacksonville-based seat but cut across the top edge of the state into Tallahassee.
If incumbents are forced to run in regions they haven't represented before, they lose all the advantage of incumbency, said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a redistricting expert.
"All they can do is spend campaign dollars, they can't endear themselves to constituents," he said.
Lewis set an Aug. 20 hearing to hear arguments on a potential special election and asked the state's secretary of state to propose a draft special elections schedule. He said the new maps will be effective by Aug. 21.
But Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, on Monday told WBOB in Jacksonville, a conservative talk radio station, that Republican leaders want the changes to take effect in the 2016 elections because it is logistically impossible to do it this year.
He said legislators will convene in session Thursday, correct the map "pretty easily" and be prepared to vote on a final plan by Monday.
"Then the judge has got to make a decision," Thrasher said. "Does he allow these new districts to go into effect for the 2016 election ... or is he going to try rearrange the deck chairs" this year?
Because overseas ballots have already be sent and returned by military voters, and early voting starts soon for the Aug. 26 primary, Thrasher predicted: "I think this guy's got a real mess on his hands if he tries to rearrange these couple of congressional districts."
McDonald said the stand-off is likely to produce more litigation. He also noted that federal law sets the date for congressional elections "and a state court does not have the authority to alter the election in this way."
"There's potential legal consequences," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we saw litigation in federal court.:
Meanwhile, the special session is expected to cost taxpayers about $68,245 per day. It will also cost legislators: House and Senate rules force them to refrain from fund-raising while they are in session.
Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader from Plantation, said he expects Republican leaders will blame the court for imposing the added costs but, he said, that argument doesn't work for his members.
"Let's all remember, the reason we're here is because the leadership who's in charge of this process did not abide by the rules of the Fair Districts process," he said.
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