Inside The Lines: Sen. Gaetz proposes moving redistricting process timeline

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Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida reports that the Legislature could consider a constitutional amendment to change the timeline for redistricting votes in an effort to address a barrage of criticism lawmakers have heard as they have traveled across Florida, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz said Tuesday.

The idea floated by Gaetz, R-Niceville, marked the second time in as many days that the lawmakers spearheading the once-a-decade redistricting process appeared to try to mollify increasingly vocal critics of the current process.

Voter-rights groups and citizens who have showed up for the public hearings that began in Tallahassee in June have roundly criticized the process for taking too long and for putting the public hearings ahead of the maps being drawn.

Gaetz and House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after a Monday meeting in Tampa that they would consider hosting videoconferences at different locations around the state to allow virtual public hearings on the maps before lawmakers vote on the final plans.

Gaetz went farther on Tuesday.

“Maybe we need to move redistricting votes to an odd-numbered year so that the Legislature and the public and the courts and the federal Justice Department all have more time,” Gaetz told reporters after the Largo meeting, where he announced he was considering sponsoring an amendment.

An amendment like the one Gaetz outlined would not affect the current round of redistricting. But it could ensure future redistricting efforts don’t run into the same resistance that this round of map-drawing has encountered. Supervisors of elections have joined groups that supported the Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering amendments in arguing that a delayed finish to redistricting could make it nearly impossible for incumbents to be effectively challenged and could cause mass confusion at the polls.

The Florida Constitution currently requires the Legislature to vote on the maps in the even-numbered year following the release of U.S. Census numbers. Lawmakers moved up the start of the session to January to try to give enough time for lawmakers to pass a map that must then be reviewed by Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, because of a history of racial or language discrimination, in parts of Florida, before it can take effect.

Critics have worried that if lawmakers wait until near the March end of the legislative session, the new lines could go into effect just days before the end of candidate qualifying and complicate efforts to mail absentee or overseas ballots for party primaries.

Those critics have frequently showed up to hammer lawmakers for not adopting a timeline recommended by the League of Women Voters and other groups, who have suggested redistricting committees tee up plans for a vote during the first week of session.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.