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Florida lawmakers propose minor changes to congressional maps

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Florida lawmakers proposed on Thursday new congressional maps that made minimal changes to the boundaries a judge had found unconstitutional, in a ruling that raised the possibility of election delays in upcoming midterm races.

Legislators reconvened for a hastily called special session under court orders to submit new boundaries for two of the state’s 27 U.S. congressional districts.

Leaders opened with a proposal offering mostly minor tweaks to the boundaries rejected last month by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who found the Republican-controlled Legislature had improperly rigged the maps to protect the party's majority in Washington.

In question are the districts represented by north Florida Democrat Corrine Brown and Orlando-area Republican Daniel Webster, which were found to violate a voter-approved mandate that prohibited legislators from protecting incumbents.

The Legislature's new proposal drew immediate criticism from the League of Women Voters of Florida, which led the lawsuit that challenged the 2012 redistricting plan.

The League and co-plaintiff Common Cause, which advocates for open government, offered an alternative on Thursday. Their map would make sweeping changes to the congressional districts in the northern part of the state, from Tallahassee in the central Panhandle to Jacksonville on the east coast.

“Slight alterations will not correct the constitutional defects Judge Lewis identified,” Deirdre Macnab, the league's state president, said in a joint statement with Peter Butzin, state chairman of Common Cause.

With absentee ballots already mailed for the Aug. 26 primaries, Republican leaders have argued that any changes should wait until after the November elections.

At the plaintiff's request, Lewis is considering whether to delay elections in the affected districts. He is expected to make a decision after hearing arguments on Aug. 20.

The Legislature plans to move ahead rapidly, with committee hearings scheduled for Friday. The House and Senate plan to vote on bills Monday, expecting final passage no later than Tuesday.

“It could be a short week next week,” said Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford, leaving open the possibility for more days of debate if needed. “We have to have a map on Judge Lewis’ desk by noon on Friday.”

Brown has cautioned against disenfranchising minority voters with changes to her snake-shaped district, which embraces pockets of black voters as it winds across the state.

Webster, a former state legislator popular with Republican leaders, had some white, conservative precincts grafted onto his district during the 2012 redistricting, enhancing his re-election chances.

(Reporting by Bill Cotterell; Editing by Letitia Stein, Eric Beech and Leslie Adler)

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