A Florida judge ordered state lawmakers to revise a map of 27 congressional districts by Aug. 15, raising the possibility of delayed elections in November.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee, the state capital, previously found the current map violated a state prohibition of gerrymandering. Until a new map is in place, it will be “difficult, if not impossible” to evaluate whether an election with new district lines is feasible before the new Congress takes office in January, Lewis said today in an order.
“It is necessary to get a revised map in place and for me to consider additional evidence as to the legal and logistical obstacles to holding delayed elections for affected districts in 2014,” Lewis wrote. “Time is of the essence.”
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature approved new maps in 2012, prompting voting-rights groups to sue claiming the districts violated a 2010 constitutional amendment prohibiting gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to favor or harm a political party. Lewis agreed and last month said two districts were intended to benefit Republicans and must be revised.
Today’s decision may upend the timetable for Florida’s elections, for which candidates have already qualified. Absentee ballots were sent last month to 63,000 Florida military and overseas voters, legislators said. Lewis raised the possibility of pushing back the general-election date for affected districts to allow for a special election.
Florida is among six states with active court challenges to redistricting plans, according to the website All About Redistricting run by Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The U.S. Supreme Court in June agreed to hear an Alabama case involving the use of race in redistricting.
Voting-rights groups in Florida proposed delaying elections as an option for Lewis. Attorneys for lawmakers said there was no legal authority for such a remedy.
“To develop a new map and hold a special election for some congressional representatives would cost more money, would place additional burdens on our election officials and might confuse some voters,” the judge said. “On the other hand, to do nothing when you could means that you lessen the ability of many citizens to fairly elect a representative of their choice.”
The primary is set to take place Aug. 26. Lewis ordered the revised map no later than noon on Aug. 15. He also asked election officials to propose a special election schedule. A hearing, if needed, is set for Aug. 20 to hear objections to the revised map or a proposed election schedule.
“The Legislature should redraw the map,” Lewis ordered. “Unless and until it becomes obvious that it cannot or will not do so, I will not consider other options.”
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for state Senate President Don Gaetz, and Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford, said they were reviewing the ruling. Gaetz and Weatherford, both Republicans, led the 2012 redistricting effort.
The League of Women Voters, which helped bring the case, called Lewis’s order a “champagne moment” for voters, saying in a statement that “the restoration of legitimate, representative democracy is well worth one extra trip to the polls.”
Lewis’s ruling spotlights how politicians draw electoral maps favoring their parties, reducing competitive races and political gridlock, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at Tampa’s University of South Florida.
“The lack of competitive districts is pervasive,” she said in a telephone interview. “All you have to do is look at the national handicappers or pundits to see how few competitive districts across the country there are.”
One district Lewis ruled invalid is held by Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat. The serpentine district, stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando and including several predominantly black communities, was “bizarrely shaped” to pack Democrats into a single jurisdiction, leaving neighboring districts more favorable to Republicans, Lewis said in July.
Brown, who is black, said in a statement today that the ruling failed to protect minority voting rights.
The cases are Romo v. Detzner, 2012-CA-412, and League of Women Voters v. Detzner, 2012-CA-490, Leon County, Florida, Circuit Court, Second Judicial Circuit (Tallahassee).