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Judge mulls timetable for redrawing Florida redistricting maps

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla (Reuters) - Lawyers for the Florida legislature's Republican leaders and county elections officers argued on Thursday that a judge who threw out their 2012 congressional redistricting plan could not require that boundaries be redrawn in time for the November elections.

But the attorney for the League of Women Voters, which successfully sued the state for illegally favoring incumbents, said it still is possible to fix the boundaries, even though early absentee ballots for the August primary have already been sent out.

The brief hearing before Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis underscored the political uncertainty and logistical quagmire resulting from last week's ruling in the nation's largest swing state at the start of the midterm elections.

Lewis found that Republican lawmakers conspired to rig the boundaries of U.S. House of Representatives districts to protect the party's majority in Washington, violating a requirement approved by voters in 2010 that prohibited legislators from favoring incumbents.

He set a full hearing for July 24 on how to proceed in the fall elections.

"This is not an impending election," said George Meros, an attorney representing Republican legislators. "This election has already begun," he added.

Absentee ballots for the Aug. 26 primary have been mailed to overseas military using the existing congressional boundaries. Next Tuesday, all other absentee ballots for the primary will be sent out.

Many completed ballots already have been returned, said Ron Labasky, the attorney representing the state association of county elections supervisors.

Labasky said that with the primaries set for next month, changing the boundaries would require notifying tens of thousands of voters. Candidates who decided to run under the old maps might change their minds when they see the redrawn districts.

Lawyers for Republican leaders and county elections officers asked the judge to postpone changes until the 2016 elections. But the plaintiffs said there still is time this year to correct the maps.

"We've already had one election on an unconstitutional map in 2012," said David King, the lawyer representing the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.

In his ruling last week, Lewis ordered that two of the state's 27 congressional districts be redrawn after hearing testimony about mysterious maps emerging from shadowy sources and Republican-only strategy sessions.

Changing the boundaries for the seats held by Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Dan Webster of Orlando would have ripple effects across central Florida, which political analysts say would likely bolster Democratic chances.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by David Adams and Leslie Adler)

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