In a motion filed on Wednesday before the United States District Court in Washington, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Justice Department did not oppose Floridaâ€™s new plan for those five counties, under one condition: The counties must offer 96 hours of voting between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. over eight days, the maximum under the law. The Justice Department sued the state over its new early voting schedule, which would have reduced the number of days for early voting.
With both sides agreeing to the terms, the court is expected to dismiss the suit. But a separate lawsuit filed by Representative Corrinne Brown, a Florida Democrat, over the stateâ€™s early voting law is pending, which could still affect the new schedule.
â€œThe approval of these changes is a tremendous victory for Florida voters,â€ said Ken Detzner, Floridaâ€™s secretary of state and chief elections officer. â€œIn the areas of the state already able to implement the changes, we have seen how the changes offer more flexibility to vote, more accountability and faster reporting times on Election Day.â€
The question of early voting has been an explosive one in Florida, with critics accusing the state of trying to discourage black voters from going to the polls. In 2008, 54 percent of Floridaâ€™s black voters voted early â€” twice the rate of white voters.
Five of Floridaâ€™s 67 counties â€” including Monroe and Hillsborough â€” fall under the national Voting Rights Act. The act requires that changes in voting laws in counties or states with a history of racial discrimination must be approved, or â€œpre-cleared,â€ by the Justice Department. Rather than wait for permission, Florida proceeded with the new rules for the 62 counties, an unorthodox move that prompted the departmentâ€™s lawsuit and threatened to create a dual election system here.
Last month, judges in the case barred Florida from rolling out its shortened early voting schedule in the five counties. The judges said the shortened schedule was discriminatory.
â€œThe state has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority votes,â€ the ruling said. The judges compared the move to â€œclosing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.â€
But the judges left open the possibility of a compromise if the state could reach an agreement with the five counties. The state negotiated with the five county elections supervisors but there was one holdout: Harry Sawyer Jr., a Monroe County Republican. Mr. Sawyer said that the reduction in days would adversely affect working people but also said he would abide by the court ruling.
As part of its election overhaul, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 and eliminated voting the Sunday before the election, in the five federally protected counties and elsewhere. The state kept intact the total number of hours.
State officials said the changes have not discouraged voters. More voters cast ballots early in the August Congressional primary than in any other primary since early voting began in 2002.
Some election supervisors said that fewer early voting days â€” coupled with fewer precincts â€” would mean long lines on Nov. 6 and possible disenfranchisement.
â€œEarly voting has saved Florida since 2000,â€ said Ion Sancho, Leon Countyâ€™s nonpartisan elections supervisor. â€œIf you take one million off early voting and send them to general voting, what will happen? Lines, lines, lines.â€
Others disagreed. â€œElection Day is going to run very smoothly,â€ said Mike Ertel, the Seminole County elections supervisor, who added that people would readjust their schedules.