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Florida to begin redrawing unconstitutional congressional maps on Thursday

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Florida legislative leaders said on Sunday they plan to call a special session on Thursday after a judge ordered them to redraw the state's U.S. congressional maps and held open the possibility of delaying general elections in November.

The decision to reconvene the legislature, which is out of session, was in response to a ruling on Friday by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis that required lawmakers to redraw the maps by Aug. 15.

Three weeks ago, Lewis ruled that two of the state's 27 congressional districts must be revised because Republican leaders improperly conspired to rig the boundaries to protect the party's majority in Washington.

After that ruling, Florida's legislative leaders asked that changes be delayed until after the 2014 elections.

"We continue to maintain our strong objection to any attempt to disrupt the current election process," Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford wrote to all members on Sunday.

"Florida's supervisors of elections have raised serious concerns over changing the elections process at this late date."

Absentee ballots have already been mailed for the Aug. 26 primaries.

Under the proposed special session schedule, most members of the House and Senate would return on Aug. 7 then leave immediately leave. Only members of the redistricting committees would work through the weekend.

The full legislature would then return on Aug. 13 to debate and pass the new maps in time to meet Lewis' deadline.

The focus will be on the congressional districts represented by Corrine Brown, a Democrat in a serpentine district stretching from Jacksonville in north Florida to Orlando in the central state, and Daniel Webster, an Orlando-area Republican.

Lewis ruled that the legislature packed Brown's district with black voters, overwhelmingly Democrats, to help the two-decade incumbent win re-election. The result left adjoining districts, including Webster's, heavily white and Republican.

In a July 10 ruling, Lewis found the result "made a mockery" of a state constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2010, prohibiting legislators from protecting incumbents.

Although Democrats outnumber Republican voters in Florida, the congressional map produced by the legislature resulted in the election of a congressional delegation with 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Lewis scheduled another hearing on Aug. 20 to consider rescheduling the affected elections.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which successfully sued the state for favoring incumbents in its 2012 congressional redistricting plan, has argued that it is still possible to fix the boundaries before the election.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Paul Tait)

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