TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature's Republican leaders said Tuesday they would re-draw two unconstitutional Orlando-area congressional districts provided the courts allowed the new map to take effect in 2016 instead of in this year's midterm elections.
The surprise announcement from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, comes less than a week after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis sided with voter-groups and found the GOP majority had intentionally drawn the seats with improper partisan intent.
The League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs want the court to force a re-drawing of the districts of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, ahead of this fall's general election.
But Gaetz and Weatherford said in a joint announcement that they would not appeal Lewis's "thoughtful" approach to applying Florida's Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering rules to the map, but that trying to force the re-drafting this year could cause chaos for thousands of military and absentee voters receiving ballots in the mail.
“Today, we have asked Judge Lewis to clarify, as a legal and practical matter, that his decision does not affect the administration of the 2014 election," they wrote. "According to federal law, over 63,000 Florida military and overseas voters are already casting absentee ballots based on the current Congressional map.
"Next week, hundreds of thousands of printed absentee ballots will be mailed to in-state voters. Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters," they continued.
"It has been the practice in other states and in Florida to remedy maps at a future election so as not to disrupt and disenfranchise voters. We believe such action is appropriate and is in the best interest of Florida, and particularly our deployed military servicemen and servicewomen, who are casting their votes now.”
Judge Lewis has set a Thursday morning hearing to discuss the potential ways for re-drawing the districts. David King, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said they were still "in the process of formulating our plans and have no comment right now."
Lewis ruled Brown's district was intentionally “packed” with minorities by GOP consultants and fed into the public record to make the surrounding seats held by Reps. John Mica, R-Winter Park, Webster and others safer.
Brown has held the seat since it was originally drawn by the courts in the 1990s to reach from Jacksonville to Orlando, scooping up African-American voters in order to comply with federal law and allow minorities the ability to elect a candidate of their choice.
But the map the Legislature adopted in 2012 boosted the African-American voting-age population of Brown’s district above 50 percent for the first time by adding a "finger-like appendage" from Mica's district.
Lewis found it unconstitutional because legislators never sold him on why they needed to make last-minute changes to boost the black voting-age population over 50 percent. The seat had successfully elected Brown for two decades without the extra few percentage-points. The shift also had the effect of helping re-elect Mica.
Webster's district takes in parts of Orange, Lake and northern Polk counties, and Lewis found problems with another "appendage" of mostly white voters which rendered his swing seat safer. Those voters would have otherwise had to go into either Brown's district of a new Hispanic "opportunity" seat drawn next to it that Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, won. The Legislature argued the swath of white voters had to go to Webster to make sure the other two seats were competitive for minorities.
Lewis didn't buy it. The Legislature's move gave Webster back a chunk of the voters he had in his old district, delivering "significant Republican benefit for a competitive district," Lewis wrote.
Changes to Webster's district might make the seat more competitive for Democrats. Former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, for instance, has been approached by national Democrats to consider running again for the district if lawmakers re-draft it this year. She lost to Webster by 11,000 votes, or 3.4 percent of the total cast, in 2012.
Webster and Brown did not return requests for comment.
Gaetz and Weatherford did not say whether they intended to re-draw the lines in a special session, or pass the job off to their replacements to handle next spring. Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy said if Lewis agrees with them, "it could be addressed after the election."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun