A Florida judge allowed the use of voting districts favoring Republicans in November while approving revised congressional boundaries for subsequent elections.
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee ruled earlier that the election map was improperly drawn and ordered the state legislature to revise the districts to address “gerrymandering” in two of them.
While voting-rights groups argued that a new map should go into effect in 2014, Lewis said in his ruling yesterday that holding special elections this year for the districts “is not an appropriate remedy under the circumstances.” The new map would instead be in place for 2016 elections.
Florida’s Republican-led legislature in 2012 approved its redistricting plan, which was signed into law by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican. Voting-rights groups sued, claiming the map violated the state constitution.
The the two problem districts cited by the judge were District 5, a jagged sliver running from Jacksonville to Orlando 140 miles (225 kilometers) south, and District 10, near Orlando. District 5 is held by U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and District 10 by Representative Daniel Webster, a Republican.
The revised map Lewis approved yesterday made changes to seven of the state’s 27 districts. Lewis had required that District 5 and District 10 be changed along with “any other districts affected thereby.”
“You know, sometimes life affords you second chances,” said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican, in a statement. “I’m glad we got it right on the second round.”
David King, a lawyer for the League of Women Voters, said in a statement that the group was “disappointed” and plans to appeal the ruling.
Voting rights groups argued the revised map was still unconstitutional and that the changes were superficial. Lewis disagreed and said that District 5 was “much improved” and is now “less serpentine and visually more compact.” The changes also removed an “appendage” designed to benefit a Republican incumbent in District 10, Lewis said.
The state is not required “to produce a map that the plaintiffs, or I, or anyone else might prefer,” Lewis said in his ruling yesterday. “The legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the constitution.”
The dispute threatened to upend the timetable for Florida’s elections, for which candidates have already qualified. Absentee ballots have already been sent to 63,000 Florida military and overseas voters, legislators said.
The legislature had argued that elections based on new maps should wait until 2016 to avoid disruptions.
In an earlier ruling, Lewis said he would “consider the possibility” of pushing back November elections, despite calling the legislature’s suggestion “more sensible.”
Florida’s secretary of state has suggested holding special elections in March and May, while saying in court filings that would probably run afoul of the requirement that members of the House serve two-year terms.
King argued at a hearing this month that the maps didn’t follow a constitutional amendment prohibiting gerrymandering and District 5 was oddly shaped to the detriment of Democrats.
“What they are really protecting is their Republican interest and they are preventing, they are constraining, more African-American representation” he said.
George Meros, an attorney representing the Florida House, said that an earlier map of the district was drawn almost 20 years ago under federal guidelines and was meant to abate “rampant racial discrimination in voting in northeast Florida.”
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).