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Florida elections face uncertainty as congressional maps redrawn

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Florida's state legislature will reconvene later this week to redraw district maps that a judge has found unconstitutional, clouding the outcome of congressional races and possibly forcing delays in elections.

Three weeks before the Aug. 26 primaries, voting officials raced to research the logistics of a special election in a large swing state already under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice for its history of voting problems in major elections.

Experts say it is unclear how many congressional districts could see changes when lawmakers gather on Thursday to redraw the maps. Dates for local elections and a toss-up governor's race would not be affected, but any voter confusion could affect turnout, which typically is low in midterm elections.

"The jigsaw puzzle has too many pieces to say what is going to happen," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "It’s very volatile."

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis on Friday gave legislators an Aug. 15 deadline to submit new congressional maps and scheduled for the following week a hearing on possibly delaying the affected elections. Republican leaders argued that the changes should be delayed until after the 2014 elections.

Lewis previously ruled that two of the state's 27 congressional districts must be redrawn, finding that Republican leaders "made a mockery" of a voter-approved requirement prohibiting legislators from protecting incumbents.

He invalidated a district held by Democrat Corrine Brown that follows a snake-like path from northeastern Jacksonville to the center of the state, packing in black voters. Adjoining districts were left heavily Republican and white, including Republican Daniel Webster's Orlando-area tract, which was also voided.

Changes to both districts could ricochet through at least a half dozen others from the Panhandle to the Tampa Bay region.

Voters in each tract would need to be notified of changes, and candidates given time to run for office, said attorney Ron Labasky, lobbyist for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

"You can't just say, 'Let's have an election,'" he said. "Even if everything runs smoothly, always a caveat in Florida, it takes time."

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which led the successful court challenge, called for vigilance as it presses legislators to fix the boundaries before the election.

"It remains to be seen whether they will produce a map that meets constitutional requirements," said state president Deirdre Macnab in a statement.

(Additional reporting and writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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