The leaders of the Florida Legislature have responded properly to a judge’s order by calling a special session this week to redraw two congressional districts that do not meet the constitutional requirements approved by voters. Now lawmakers should make a good-faith effort to redraw the districts without regard to protecting incumbents or political parties.
Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis correctly gave lawmakers the first shot at redrawing the districts held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Dan Webster, a Winter Garden Republican. The courts should take over redrawing the lines only when the Legislature repeatedly fails to do it legally or when lawmakers abdicate their responsibility.
Brown’s district remains a particular challenge, because it winds from Jacksonville to Orlando and was originally drawn in 1992 to give minority voters an opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice. Brown, an African-American, has held the seat since then and is not happy about its boundaries being adjusted. But Lewis correctly ruled that Republican legislators in 2012 packed her district with more minority residents to help protect adjacent districts held by Republicans, which violates the Florida Constitution. Brown has previously demonstrated a minority can win her district when it does not have a majority black voting age population, and now legislators will have to move some of those black residents from Brown’s district to adjacent ones.
Equally troubling is the question of timing. The primary election is just three weeks from today, and thousands of voters already have cast their mail ballots. Lewis has scheduled an Aug. 20 hearing to discuss how to proceed, and there are no perfect options. The most reasonable is for the primary and general elections to continue as scheduled with the current congressional districts. Congressional districts in North and Central Florida are certain to be adjusted, and the new districts are likely to face legal challenges even if Lewis signs off on them. Voters in the adjusted districts should not have to wait until 2016 to vote for the candidate of their choice, but special elections should wait until after this November.
First, though, legislators have to draw districts that meet the constitutional requirements approved by voters. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, set the right tone by reminding lawmakers to preserve all redistricting related documents. That did not happen the last time. They also need to keep the political consultants at arm’s length this week, which also did not happen in 2012. The best way to ensure voters are able to cast ballots in legally drawn congressional districts as soon as possible is to keep this special session as open and transparent as possible.