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Groups argue Florida must hold statewide election for 2 congressional seats if map isn't fixed

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — If a judge does not approve an interim map of Florida's congressional seats to replace one that has been deemed unconstitutional, officials could be forced to allow voters from across the state to choose candidates for two congressional seats, the coalition challenging the current districts said Tuesday.

The League of Women Voters and other groups filed court papers arguing that if new districts are not approved this year, then federal law requires at-large elections for the seats added in 2012. Florida went from 25 to 27 seats after the 2010 census.

The groups acknowledged, however, that statewide elections for congressional seats are not very realistic. Instead, they urged Lewis to allow groups on both sides of the lawsuit to submit remedial maps that could be reviewed objectively by an independent expert. They repeated their suggestion that Lewis could push back the date of the Aug. 26 primary in order to have time to put a new map in place.

"There is still time to have a constitutional plan in place before the end of 2014, and that approach - even if it requires additional cost and effort - avoids the practical and legal difficulties inherent in (federal law) without keeping unconstitutional districts in place for another election cycle," reads the court filing.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis earlier this month ruled that Florida's districts are illegal because two were drawn to benefit the Republican Party. State legislative leaders said they would accept the decision and not challenge it further.

Lewis, however, is supposed to decide this week whether the map can be changed before the November elections. Legislative attorneys have argued that making changes now would disrupt the elections. During a hearing last week, Lewis said he was "skeptical" he could put a new map in place.

But the groups who filed the lawsuit contend that if there is no acceptable map in place this year then a "stop-gap measure" is to hold statewide elections. The motion does not spell out which districts would be subjected to a statewide election.

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, are the current incumbents in the 26th and 27th districts. Ros-Lehtinen has been in Congress for 25 years but her district number was changed during the last round of redistricting.

Garcia's re-election is already expected to be one of the more competitive in the state. Two years ago Garcia knocked off incumbent U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

In 2010, the state's voters adopted "Fair Districts" amendments to the state constitution saying legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering.

Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that two districts violated the new standards. One is the sprawling territory stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando that's home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown. The other is a central Florida district that is home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

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