Political battle in Florida over redistricting goes to court

TALLAHASSEE, Florida Mon May 19, 2014 7:42pm EDT

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A two-week civil trial opened on Monday to examine how the boundaries of Florida's 27 seats in the House of Representatives were redrawn two years ago by state lawmakers.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and some individual voters argue the state's Republican-led state Legislature violated a state constitutional amendment prohibiting consideration of party membership, incumbency or other partisan factors in drawing up congressional districts.

The current boundaries are being defended by Florida's state's top election official, the secretary of state, under Republican Governor Rick Scott.

The trial is largely shaping up as a clash along partisan lines in a key electoral swing state.

A high-level Republican campaign consultant testified on the opening day of the trial that party strategists got advance copies of congressional redistricting maps, but denied covertly advising legislative leaders on how to shape the districts in ways that would bolster the party's strength in Washington.

Marc Reichelderfer, a lobbyist and political adviser who has worked with top Republican legislators and congressional candidates over the past 20 years, was the first witness.

Reichelderfer said he and some other veteran Republican strategists met with officers and redistricting chairmen of the state House and Senate, along with some staff aides involved in the re-mapping process.

He said lawyers advised the consultants that they could have no "seat at the table," but he said it was important for the political consultants to keep their individual clients briefed on how scores of different district configurations might affect them.

Confronted with e-mail messages the plaintiffs' attorneys had culled from legislative computers and those of the consultants, Reichelderfer said he received drafts of district maps well in advance of their public release.

David King, an attorney arguing against the redistricting, pointed out that some of those messages were received on the eve of public release of maps, while others went out to consultants as much as two weeks in advance of the voters seeing what plans state legislators were to consider.

"We are political junkies," Reichelderfer replied. "Drawing maps is kind of like doing a Rubik's Cube."

Reichelderfer said he and other Republican consultants received information from the House redistricting staff only to advise their clients, not to change the results.

"This is a battle the League has been fighting for years," Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said outside the court.

"We started when the Democrats were in charge in Tallahassee, and now the Republicans are in power. It's not about that. It's about giving the voters fair choices."

(Editing by Kevin Gray. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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