The Florida Legislature's surprise announcement Tuesday that it would not appeal a judge's decision to throw out the state's congressional map and order two districts to be redrawn is the correct approach. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' order was a sweeping indictment of a tainted process, and lawmakers were not likely to convince the Florida Supreme Court that the judge was wrong. The tougher questions are who should redraw the districts and how fast they should be redrawn, because the last thing Florida needs is another chaotic election season that confuses voters.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, argued in their joint statement that the Legislature should redraw the districts and that the new districts should take effect for a future election. They are at least right in their first point. The Legislature should get another crack at redrawing the districts, because it has that responsibility in the state Constitution. If they fail again to do it right, then the court can appoint a special master to draw a new map or adjust the lines.
The tougher question involves the timing. It would take time for the Legislature to redraw the two congressional districts, and there is no time now without significantly disrupting the 2014 election.
Congressional candidates qualified for the ballot in May. Thousands of ballots for the Aug. 26 primary already have been sent to military and overseas voters based on the congressional map that lawmakers approved in 2012. Federal law requires those ballots to go out at least 45 days before the election, so legislators cannot make quick adjustments to the map and direct that revised ballots go out in time for the primary election. Pushing back the primary election to allow for a new congressional map to be drawn likely would require the November congressional election to be delayed.
Yet the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs who won at trial are not likely to agree to wait until the 2016 election for a legal congressional map. Voters already have voted in two illegally drawn districts in 2012 and face the prospect of doing it again this year. There is a legitimate argument to be made that they should not have to spend four years in that situation.
This is the Hobson's choice Lewis faces when he holds a status conference on Thursday to discuss how to move forward. One of the issues he should explore for beyond the 2014 election is how difficult it would be for lawmakers to redraw the sprawling district represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, and the Orlando area district represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster. There may be alternative maps that legislators rejected earlier that would take just a little fine-tuning to meet the constitutional requirements that districts not be drawn to protect political parties or incumbents.
First and foremost, Lewis should keep the voters in mind rather than the convenience of lawmakers and candidates as he sorts out the options. They should be represented in Congress by House members who ran in legally drawn districts, but achieving that goal should not cause so much disruption and confusion that voters have even less faith in the electoral process than they do now.