TALLAHASSEE, Fla. —
A federal court says a Florida law that restricts the number of early-voting days could result in a dramatic reduction in voting by blacks.
The Republican-controlled Florida legislature last year cut the number of early-voting days to eight from 12.
But the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled late Thursday that because of the law’s potential impact on minority voters, it would not allow Florida to put the changes in place in five Florida counties covered by federal voting laws.
The court said that evidence presented in the case clearly showed that black voters utilized early voting much more than white voters do, especially in the 2008 election, when President Barack Obama won Florida.
“In sum, Florida is left with nothing to rebut either the testimony of the defendants’ witnesses or the common-sense judgment that a dramatic reduction in the form of voting that is disproportionately used by African-Americans would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot,” states the ruling issued by a three-judge panel.
The 119-page ruling did say there were ways that the state could ultimately come up with a plan to change early voting that would not adversely impact minority voting rights.
Still the ruling raises the prospect that Florida will have two different types of early voting for this year’s crucial presidential election.
The changes to early voting were included in a sweeping election law that also shortened the time for voter registration groups to turn in forms and forced voters to use a provisional ballot if they change their address from one county to another on Election Day.
The law went before a federal court because five Florida counties are covered by federal voting laws due to a past history of discrimination and must have any changes pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court. Traditionally Florida has postponed election-law changes for the entire state until the changes have been cleared for those counties. But the state last year directed the state’s other counties – including ones in South Florida – to start following the new law.
The court did not address the voter registration restrictions because a separate federal court recently blocked them. But the court did uphold the address-change provision that some critics saw as a way to blunt voting by college students.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Scott , who signed the measures into law last year, emphasized that the court did suggest there was still a way for Florida to make the early voting changes.
“Although the governor hasn’t had a chance to review the ruling, it’s encouraging that the court upheld part of the law and outlined a path for Florida to get pre-clearance for the voting hours provision as well,” said Brian Burgess.
Five Florida counties – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 5 requires all or parts of 16 states to be precleared by the Justice Department’s civil rights division or a federal court before carrying out changes in elections. The states are mostly in the South and all have a past history of discrimination.