TALLAHASSEE — Elections officials in the counties facing redrawn congressional districts concluded on Tuesday that, contrary to arguments of Republican legislators, the state could conduct special elections for a handful of districts this year — but winners would not be chosen until after Nov. 4.
By postponing the primary and general elections for as many as 10 congressional seats, Florida could again become the last state in the nation to announce its elections results. But, officials said, it may be the only option to avoid electing candidates to Congress from unconstitutional districts in North and Central Florida.
"We decided we can do a special primary, post the November election — there is a window of opportunity — but we need to decide what are those dates,'' said Jerry Holland, supervisor of elections for Duval County and head of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections.
Elections for congressional districts that are unchanged by the map revisions — and all other races on the ballot — would continue as planned under the current election schedule.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled last month that two of Florida's 27 congressional districts violated the Fair Districts provisions of the state Constitution and invalidated districts held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. He ordered the Legislature to redraw the boundaries by Aug. 15 and said he is considering calling special elections for any districts affected by the new map for after Nov. 4.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz scheduled an eight-day special session, beginning Thursday, to redraw the maps but argued that requiring the new districts to take effect this year will be disruptive to voters and unfair to minorities.
At a court hearing last month, the Republican leaders urged Lewis to have the new districts take effect for the 2016 election and they offered to redraw them after the general election this year. But Lewis rejected that argument and gave the secretary of state until Aug. 15 to come up with a special election schedule. He will hear arguments Aug. 20 before making a final decision.
In a conference call on Tuesday, the supervisors of elections for Orange, Marion, St. John's, Clay and Duval counties — the areas that will be most affected by the changes to Brown's and Webster's districts — discussed the options for conducting special elections this year.
They ruled out the option of conducting special elections before the Nov. 4 general election, Holland told the Times/Herald. Another suggestion, to use the general election as the primary, was also ruled out because it would "create massive voter confusion," he said.
Orange County Supervisor Bill Cowles said there are many outstanding questions that elections officials can't answer, particularly if either the voting groups that brought the lawsuit or the GOP-led Legislature appeal Lewis' final ruling.
"The first question is: How long will it take to get judicially approved districts?'' he said. "Will somebody appeal or challenge the districts the Legislature approves? We can't do anything until we get final districts."
Once the districts are set, elections officials need time to revise their precinct maps and notify voters, a process that will take three to four weeks, Holland said. After that, candidates will need time to qualify for the new districts before the primary.
Lewis said in his order that he wants the Legislature to fix the map to make Brown's snake-shaped district more compact and to remove an appendage in Webster's Central Florida district intended to give Republicans an advantage.
Under most scenarios, any changes to the two districts will result in changes to surrounding districts held by incumbent U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw, Ted Yoho, Ron DeSantis, John Mica and Bill Posey, all Republicans.
Holland emphasized that most counties south and west of Orlando will not be affected by the changes "but it may impact as many as 10 to 15,'' he said.
Elections officials will conduct a conference call with all 67 supervisors of elections on Thursday, Holland said, to get additional feedback.
Meanwhile, the heads of the House and Senate redistricting committees on Tuesday signaled they expect a quick fix to the map and expect the session to be adjourned on Monday or Tuesday.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, also ordered their staffs to refrain from discussing the maps with legislators, outside groups or anyone other than the Legislature's legal counsel.
The warnings came after Lewis rebuked legislators in his ruling for allowing Republican political consultants to hijack the redistricting process in 2012 and create a shadow process that "made a mockery" of legislators' claims of transparency.
Galvano said in an email to members that they may not "share their work product with any outside interests," and Corcoran said that any legislator who wanted to offer a redistricting plan must be "prepared to explain in committee or on the House floor the identity of every person involved in drawing, reviewing, directing or approving the proposal."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.