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GOP Leaders Want to Redraw Districts After Fall Elections

Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday they do not plan to appeal a judge's ruling that struck down Florida's congressional map but want lawmakers to be able to redraw the disputed districts after this fall's elections.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contend it's too late in the current election cycle to redraw the districts, as ballots have already been sent to overseas voters in advance of the Aug. 26 primaries.

"The election process is in full swing," the state argued in a motion filed Tuesday that seeks a quick decision from Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. "Candidates have collected petitions and qualified for the ballot. Campaigns have been conducted. Ballots have been printed."

Lewis ruled last week that lawmakers failed during the 2012 redistricting process to follow the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010.

Groups challenging the congressional map, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, declined to comment Tuesday, awaiting a decision from their legal team about how to respond to the legislative leaders' request.

In a joint statement, Gaetz and Weatherford noted that more than 63,000 military and overseas voters have been sent ballots, with the first batches of in-state absentee ballots going out next week.

"Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters," Gaetz and Weatherford said in the statement.

Lewis' ruling specifically took aim at the districts represented Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Congressman Daniel Webster, a Winter Garden Republican.

Brown's District 5, which winds its way from Jacksonville to Orlando, has been criticized for years as one of the worst examples of gerrymandering in the nation.

But any changes to the two districts could have a domino effect on surrounding seats and ripple through the rest of the map, given that all congressional districts must have virtually equal populations.

Lewis rejected challenges to the lines for eight other districts.

Weatherford and Gaetz took that as a sign that Lewis upheld "25 of 27 congressional districts statewide and (left) intact the vast majority of the actions taken by the Legislature."

However, Lewis' ruling last week wasn't clear on when lawmakers might have to redraw the districts.

Delaying the redrawing until after the fall elections would leave the work to new legislative leaders. Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, is scheduled to become House speaker in November, while Orlando Republican Andy Gardiner is slated to become Senate president.

According to Lewis, lawmakers and staff members charged with the once-a-decade redistricting process tried to shield the map drawers from political influence, even as Republican political consultants tried to find a way to manipulate the process.

Lewis also found fault with explanations offered by the Legislature for some of the damaging evidence at the trial. For example, one key email featured Kirk Pepper, an aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, asking a political consultant whether some unstated issues with Webster's Orlando-area district related to "performance or geography."

On Monday, attorneys for the groups challenging the maps asked Lewis to schedule a conference to decide how the state should proceed with trying to redraw the congressional district boundaries.

The Supreme Court already invalidated the Legislature's first draft of a state Senate plan, which was then redrawn before the 2012 elections.

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