District lines still unresolved
Hearing set for next week
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 5:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 5:28 p.m.
The murky future of North Central Florida's congressional districts was put on hold Thursday when a Tallahassee judge opted to wait until next week before deciding who should fix the state's redistricting problem and when.
Whenever Circuit Judge Terry Lewis settles that question, the answer could unsettle thousands of voters in Alachua and surrounding counties, observers say.
Lewis ruled last week that Florida's map of congressional districts was unconstitutional because a pair of districts were drawn to favor Republican candidates, shaped as they were because of the influence of GOP political consultants who worked covertly with state lawmakers and staff.
The maps violated a state constitutional amendment adopted in 2010 that sought to end such a partisan process, commonly known as gerrymandering, Lewis determined.
Key to Lewis' decision was the testimony of Pat Bainter, a Republican and owner of Data Targeting, a political consulting firm in Gainesville that developed the maps.
Yet Bainter's role in the controversy is largely unknown to the public. That's because the judge sealed records belonging to Bainter, although the documents were introduced into the case, and because Lewis allowed Bainter to testify at a closed hearing.
On Thursday, lawyers representing the GOP-led Legislature and county elections supervisors throughout the state told the judge the maps could not be revised before the upcoming elections, according to the Associated Press.
"At this point, absent some very novel, creative plan on your part, we just don't see how there is any possible way you could intervene … and have an election in newly created districts," Ron Labasky, the lawyer for the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association, told Lewis, according to a Miami Herald report.
Florida's primary elections will be held Aug. 26, but an estimated 1.4 million mail-in ballots for those contests are expected to be mailed out by early next week.
Lewis, according to the AP account, acknowledged that he had not thought about the effect of his ruling on this year's elections because he had expected the losing party to appeal.
The Legislature's Republican leadership announced earlier this week that no appeal was forthcoming.
The judge scheduled a follow-up hearing July 24.
The Herald noted that the voters' rights groups that initially brought the case will get an opportunity at that proceeding to argue for redrawing the maps before November's elections.
Lawmakers have said they want to redraw the maps after the 2014 election season.
However Lewis decides, though, the outcome could affect thousands of local voters.
In his ruling last week, the judge singled out two districts for not complying with the so-called Fair Districts amendment adopted in 2010.
One of them is represented by Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville. Resembling a burnt-up worm on a hot sidewalk, Brown's district winds from Jacksonville to Orlando, covering southeastern Alachua County and eastern Marion County along the way.
The 11-term congresswoman thus represents 25,960 registered voters in Alachua and another 5,531 in Marion, according to county election officials.
On Thursday, Brown's office said the veteran lawmaker would not have any new comments at this point.
Per Lewis' decision, the 12-day trial determined that Florida's congressional boundaries were plotted to benefit Republican candidates.
Brown, however, maintained in a statement issued on Tuesday that black voters — who typically vote Democratic — gained from the process as well. And reconfiguring the districts would undermine that, argued the congresswoman, who is black.
"This insensitive ruling has the potential to deny millions of African-Americans across the state the opportunity to elect a representative who shares their ethnic identity," Brown said in Tuesday's statement.
Brown also has complained the Fair Districts amendment fragments minority communities who "do not live in compact, cookie-cutter-like neighborhoods."
Republicans have tended to agree, saying her district was carved in such a way to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis disagreed in his ruling.
He conceded that "racially polarized" voting has occurred in northeast Florida, but he added that the defendants failed to show that the situation was "legally significant" in this instance.
There was insufficient evidence presented to demonstrate that a majority population votes as a bloc to defeat a candidate preferred by minorities, the judge added.
Regarding Brown's district, Lewis ordered that any surrounding district must likewise be redrawn as hers is brought into constitutional compliance.
The outcome could bring changes to Rep. Ted Yoho, whose district also touches Brown's. Yoho's office did not immediately return a request for comment.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said at this point she could only speculate about the fallout of Lewis' upcoming decision.
Yet, she said, it was possible part of Marion County could be severed from Brown's district and lumped in with Orlando-area districts.
Yoho's district might change along with Brown's, MacManus said.
MacManus added that Lewis' ruling would likely cost Brown the Orlando part of her district.
As for Alachua, MacManus said it was also unclear how many black voters a revised plan would pull from Brown's district before returning it to levels that would violate federal law, and that might help keep the community in her grasp.
But a move to cut Alachua might invite a lawsuit by Brown because of the mix of black voters and Democratic-leaning white liberals who are now her constituents, MacManus said.
"She wants to keep Alachua County," she noted.
MacManus suggested the case is more politically charged than many think, as Lewis' next move will be closely watched beyond North Central Florida.
"The bigger picture actually is that a lot of states are looking at this scenario," MacManus said. "You're going to see a lot of similar efforts with Fair Districts amendments in other states" if this succeeds.
The other district Lewis ordered to be redrawn is represented by Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, who represented part of Marion County prior to the 2012 redistricting.
According to court records, Webster was a client of Data Targeting, the Gainesville firm that drew the maps.
On Thursday, Webster's office said the congressman declined to comment, viewing the issue as a matter between the Legislature and the courts.