State: US House special election would be in 2015

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida, and Steve Patrick,
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5th Congressional District before and after Florida Legislature's redistricting in 2014. The Florida Supreme Court ruled on July 9 lawmakers the new map, along with seven other districts in the state, still favors the incumbent.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Proposed special elections in the seven congressional districts redrawn by the Legislature earlier this week would have to wait until at least spring of next year, Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office said in a court filing Friday.

The special elections could not take place until after the regular November vote was certified and some other post-election reports were finished -- a process that will last into December, according to the filing.

Accounting for all the things that would then have to be done to prepare for the special elections, Detzner's brief says that the earliest possible Tuesday for a primary election would be March 17. A general election could then be held May 26.

"After consultation with the county supervisors of elections, who are charged with the difficult and complicated duty of planning and conducting elections, it has been determined that it is not possible to conduct a special primary election for newly drawn congressional districts between the regularly scheduled primary and general elections or on the same day as the general election," attorneys for Detzner wrote.

COURT DOCUMENT: Florida election officials response to Judge Lewis

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who prompted a special legislative session by striking down two congressional districts for violating the Florida Constitution's ban on political gerrymandering, had asked Detzner and the supervisors to come up with a schedule for possible special elections to fill any seats affected by the new map. Lewis said he needed to see the Legislature's revised plan and hear from elections officials before making a final decision about delaying this year's vote.

While lawmakers redrew the districts during the session that ended Monday, they protested any possible delay in the regularly scheduled 2014 elections. They say tens of thousands of Florida voters, including members of the military serving overseas, have already begun returning absentee ballots in primaries scheduled for Aug. 26. Early voting is also underway in some counties.

But voting-rights organizations and voters who sued to overturn the original plan for the congressional districts, which were approved in 2012, say it's not fair to hold elections based on unconstitutional districts. Lewis is expected to hold a hearing Wednesday on the new map and the possibility of a special election.

"Judge Lewis said ‘the cure should not be worse than the illness' and we have been working non-stop to do just that and explore elections scenarios, from combining existing election schedules to creating a new accurate timeline that would allow for alternative congressional elections," Duval County Supervisor Jerry Holland said in a statement released Friday. "It's our role to stand up for the voter."

Meanwhile, the Legislature filed a brief Friday describing the new map to Lewis and defending it from an anticipated challenge by plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit.

"The Legislature acted promptly and in good faith not only to correct the deficiencies identified by this court but also to enact a plan that dramatically enhances both the visual and numerical compactness of the entire region, while protecting from diminishment the ability of minorities to elect their preferred candidates," lawyers for the House and Senate wrote.

The attorneys specifically defended the decision not to radically overhaul the district represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, which now would cut through seven counties as it runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, down from eight counties in the original map. Some plaintiffs want the district to have an east-west orientation instead.

"No member -- Democrat or Republican -- introduced a plan (in the special session) that did not in some fashion unite minority communities in Jacksonville and Orlando," the Legislature's attorneys wrote. "With strong support from both sides of the aisle, a Jacksonville-to-Orlando district does not reflect a partisan gerrymander."

Voting-rights groups that challenged the districts, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, issued a brief statement Friday and said they wouldn't comment further.

"We do not agree with the positions taken by the legislative defendants, the secretary of state or the supervisors of elections in their filings today," attorney Thomas Zehnder said. "We will be filing our response with the court by noon on Monday."

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