Florida’s vote laws have it in spotlight

– Stick a pin almost anywhere on a map of Florida and you’ll find a legal battle over who will be eligible to vote in the coming presidential election – and when, and how, and where.

In a state crucial to Mitt Romney’s battle to replace President Obama, a sweeping law passed in 2011 by the Republican legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott has created an awesome wake of litigation.

The law imposes more than 75 changes, including new restrictions on who can register voters and limits on the time allowed for early voting. Sponsors of the measure said it creates a more reliable system that combats voter fraud, while opponents, a group that included every Democratic lawmaker, called it a partisan ploy to suppress voters who traditionally favor Democrats.

But unlike the frenzied trip to the U.S. Supreme Court that followed the close of voting in the 2000 presidential race, the Sunshine State’s legal battles are being waged in advance of the November vote.

“Florida is desperately trying not to be the next Florida,” said Richard Hasen, an expert on election law whose new book, “The Voting Wars,” begins with a chapter titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Florida.”

One of the many legal battles in Florida was answered last week, when a panel of federal judges ruled that the new limits on early voting could not be implemented in five counties that receive special scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act.

Florida, said the unanimous ruling, “has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters.”

That will hardly be the last judicial decision affecting Florida’s nearly 11.5 million voters before polls close on Nov. 6.

In Miami, minority groups have sued the state over whether its plan to purge the voter lists of non-citizens might result in legitimate voters losing their rights.

In Tampa, a similar lawsuit asks whether the state’s plan to purge the lists violated a different section of the federal law.

In Tallahassee, judges in two courts considered a host of suits and countersuits, including one change that caused the League of Women Voters to suspend voter-registration efforts for fear of criminal penalties.

And in Duval County, where blacks make up a larger portion of voters than in any of Florida’s other large counties, Elder Lee Harris has joined a lawsuit that would require the state to continue to allow early voting on the Sunday before the election.

“Sunday in the African-American community is traditionally our day of rest, and once that early voting – ‘take your souls to the polls’ – caught on here, it became easier for people to get involved in voting,” Harris said. “Early voting in the minority community paid off.”

The 2011 law reduced the number of days that Florida’s 67 counties may offer early voting from 14 to eight, and reduced the minimum number of hours polls must be open from 96 to 48.

It did require for the first time that all counties offer Sunday voting – it was optional before – but specified that the Sunday could not be the one two days before the election.