Elections Supervisor Says Redistricting Should Wait – But Not Until 2016

Jul 25, 2014

Here's John Devaney arguing before Judge Terry Lewis
Credit Nick Evans

This week voting rights groups presented their case for redrawing Florida’s unconstitutional electoral map immediately rather than waiting until after this year’s election.  But officials charged with conducting elections are doubtful the plan could work.  

Two weeks ago a Florida court invalidated two of the state’s congressional districts.  Then a week ago, lawyers for the Legislature and secretary of state said they wouldn’t appeal the ruling but argued there isn’t enough time to change borders before the November election.  Now the saga continues as lawyers for the opposition have presented a number of proposals shifting the voting timeline to allow new districts to be drawn.

“There are multiple examples of courts that have intervened days before an election, weeks before an election, or a couple months before an election to stop an election from going forward to enjoin use of an invalid map, and to impose new election deadlines that ensure a valid, constitutional map is used in the election process,” attorney John Devaney says,

Devaney represents one of the plaintiffs who challenged Florida’s districts.  But the officials in charge of voting – the supervisors of elections – have raised questions about moving an election.  Duval County Supervisor Jerry Holland testified under ideal circumstances he would have at least six months to prepare. 

There are practical and legal reasons for the length of this lead time.  On the practical side, just printing ballots can be challenging.  Leon County Supervisor Ion Sancho says each polling place gets different ballots.

“So, in a primary in Leon County, we’ll have 93 voting locations, times three ballot styles at every location,” Sancho says.

That’s 279 unique ballot styles for one election in one county.

“It’s one of the things that people are unaware of, are the complexity of some of the issues facing elections administrators,” Sancho says.

On the legal side, there are a number of requirements designed to ensure voters have adequate time to make their decision.  One law is the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act or UOCAVA.  Sancho explains, “45 days in anticipation of an election, all overseas voters – both civilian and military – have to have an absentee ballot mailed to them.”

Lawyers for the voting rights groups suggest asking the federal government for a waiver.  But Sancho says the 45 days are necessary to ensure ballots don’t just get to voters, but also make it back in time for Election Day.  With all these challenges in mind, Sancho thinks this year’s election should carry on as planned.

“As a supervisor of elections,” Sancho says, “I’d rather complete the process that we’ve been planning for 18 months – that we’ve budgeted for – rather than create something absolutely new on the fly.”

But Sancho doesn’t agree with the argument that a new map should wait until the next election cycle in 2016.

“Why keep individuals in illegal seats for multiple years?  It makes no sense to me,” Sancho says.  “So the issue is when can we have an election that is timely, that will allow all of us to do all the normal procedures, and give notice to the citizens as well as the candidates that this is occurring.”

Sancho suggests holding a special election after the general to choose representatives under newly drawn districts.  Because Florida typically holds its presidential primaries in the spring, Sancho offers March 2015 as a potential date. 

But even this solution presents complications.  Raoul Cantero, attorney for the Florida Senate, says if someone’s elected, they’re in – for the full two year term.

“It’s in the federal constitution that terms are for two years,” Cantero says. “In fact many cases have said that a particular map is unconstitutional and yet allowed the next elections to proceed under that map because there’s not enough time.  It happens fairly often.”

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will rule on whether the election will proceed as planned by August 1.