Judge hears Florida voting law arguments

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Opponents of the state’s controversial elections law tangled Friday with the Secretary of State’s office in a hearing that marked the first part of what will likely be a two-stage battle to block the law’s most contentious provisions from governing the November elections.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and a pair of voting-rights groups contend that exempting five counties from those provisions — including a reduction in early-voting days and placing limits on when voters can change their addresses at the polling place — creates a two-tiered system violates state law requiring elections rules to be uniform across the state.

Because of a history of racial or language discrimination, Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties are required under the Voting Rights Act to get “preclearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before implementing changes to elections procedures.

The least-controversial measures were cleared by the Justice Department, but state officials took the more combustible provisions to the D.C. court when they feared the agency would reject them; that case is ongoing.

In 2011, after the bill was signed, then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the 62 other counties to implement the law anyway, something critics of the measure say was unprecedented.

The specific issue before a Florida Division of Administrative Hearings judge Friday was whether a directive from Browning telling supervisors in the 62 counties to go ahead with the law constitutes a “rule” and should be thrown out because he didn’t take it through the state’s rulemaking process.

Mark Herron, representing the opponents of the law, said the directive clearly was aimed at implementing the law in the same way a rule would.

“Because the secretary elects not to call the statements a rule is not determinative,” Herron said.

But Daniel Nordby, a lawyer for the Florida Department of State, brushed aside that argument.

“The challenged statements here do nothing more than reiterate the requirements of existing state and federal laws,” Nordby said.