Federal court rejects early-voting restrictions in five counties – Sun

TALLAHASSEE – A federal court ruling that a Florida law restricting the number of early-voting days disenfranchises black voters means that the state may be operating under two sets of early-voting laws during this fall’s presidential election.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington ruled late Thursday that Florida’s reduction of early-voting days from 12 to 8 “would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot.” The ruling applies to five Florida counties covered by the Voting Rights Act.

However, the early-voting restrictions – part of a massive 2011 election-law reform bill – will remain in effect in the state’s 62 other counties.

“This dual election system is illegal and will lead to confusion and chaos in November,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has filed its own challenge to the restrictions.”It is our hope that that case is resolved quickly in order to prevent a new ‘Florida 2000’ mess of Governor Scott’s and the legislature’s creation.”

The court’s ruling was a major victory for civil rights groups, which said that the Republican-authored 2011 law was intended to reduce voting opportunities for minorities and college students, who tend to vote Democratic. But the ruling applies only to Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee, and Hendry counties; past discriminatory history in those counties means any voting law change must be “pre-cleared” by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts.

The federal panel said that the evidence showed blacks clearly used early voting much more than whites, especially in 2008 when President Barack Obama carried Florida, and that Florida failed to prove that the new law would not impact minority voters. In part, they said, this was because county elections supervisors were given free rein over the hours of operation during the eight days of early voting. They could have as few as 48, or as many as 96 hours.

If the state guaranteed that there would be 96 hours, as there were under the old law, that might have changed the outcome, the court wrote in its 119-page opinion.

“But neither Florida nor the counties have submitted the counties’ intended hours for preclearance, nor do we have any real indication of what the counties will do,” the three judges added.

A spokesman for the Department of State said that Florida remains in the same position it did for the Aug. 14 primary, with the five counties operating under the 12-day schedule.

Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said that Scott was pleased that the judges provided a “pathway” for the changes in early voting to be approved. The panel also signed off on other changes to the law, including elimination of a long-standing practice allowing address changes at the polling place, used by many college students. Now, such a voter must cast a provisional ballot unless his or her move was within the same county.

“The next step is figuring out how best to satisfy the court’s guidance related to early voting in time for the November election,” Burgess said.

khaughney@tribune.com or 850-224-6214