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6 words may block overhaul of redistricting

A citizen initiative to keep lawmakers out of the process has 81 words. The limit is 75.

By JONI JAMES
Published August 23, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A push to strip the Legislature of its power to draw political districts and give it to an independent commission has hit a snag: One of the proposals has too many words.

Under state law, ballot language for citizen initiatives to amend Florida's Constitution can't exceed 75 words.

The petition in question, one of three the Campaign for Fair Elections is trying to get on the November 2006 ballot, has 81 words.

The measure would require that congressional or legislative districts be drawn so that they favor no one political party or candidate - a dramatic change to the status quo where legislative leaders routinely draw boundaries to benefit individual politicians.

Campaign organizers, backed by Common Cause of Florida, said they were unaware of the problem until contacted by the St. Petersburg Times on Monday. By early evening, organizers said they were still trying to determine their options and whether approval by the Secretary of State's Office provided some cover.

"The campaign is moving forward, and I don't want to even speculate until we find out more information," said Ben Wilcox, chairman of the campaign and executive director for Florida Common Cause.

Secretary of state spokeswoman Jenny Nash said late Monday that elections officials should have considered word count in approving the petition for signature gathering. The office will spend today investigating, she said.

Election law specialists were skeptical that the measure could be salvaged. It could run afoul of the state Supreme Court, which must approve all ballot measures.

"That's a problem," said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who specializes in election law and backs the campaign, when told Monday that the ballot summary was six words too long.

Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard said the court on several occasions has rejected requests to amend or change ballot language after petition-gathering has begun. "I don't know of any case where the number of words was called into question," Richard said. "But the court has been very strict on the point that no one can rewrite the summary, not even them."

The other two petitions backed by the group appear to conform to state law.

One would create a commission of 15 citizens appointed by legislative leaders and the state Supreme Court chief justice to draw the boundaries for legislative and congressional seats. The other would require that the commission convene in time to draw new boundaries for the 2008 elections.

Each petition has drawn about 200,000 signatures, though only about a fourth have been processed by the Secretary of State's Office.

Each petition needs 611,009 signatures from registered voters verified by the state by Feb. 1, plus approval by the Florida Supreme Court, to qualify for the November 2006 ballot.

[Last modified August 23, 2005, 02:45:30]


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