Early voting in the August 2012 primary was up 52 percent from August 2008. This impressive showing followed the Republican-dominated Legislature’s passage of a controversial election law that, among other things, decreased the number of days in which in-person early voting was allowed.
Voters, apparently, can find their way to the polls — when real issues motivate them. Issues and hot elections drive turnout. The length of the early-voting period — now eight days — matters less.
Previously, election supervisors could offer up to 14 days of early voting. That was changed in 2011 to eight days. State officials said 367,000 people took advantage of early voting in the Aug. 14 primary. In the August 2008 primary, 240,000 voters cast ballots early, over more days.
The improved early-voting numbers don’t matter to Democrats. They see any attempt by Republicans to alter election laws as an effort to hand the presidential race over to the GOP.
“People are trying to take away your most precious right. Don’t let them,” said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Democrat from Broward County, who is also eyeing a run for governor in 2014.
It’s easy to understand why Democrats are so worried about early voting hours. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, more than half of black voters used early voting for the general election in 2008. Those Florida voters helped propel Democrat Barack Obama into the White House.
So Democrats attacked the law, and the American Civil Liberties Union sued.
Yet on Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP won a battle in federal court, when Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, said he would accept the state’s eight-day early voting plan in five counties that the federal government regulates because of past racial discrimination. Those counties are Monroe, Hillsborough, Collier, Henry and Hardee. Because of the federal regulation, those counties were exempted from new rules in August — but they now have to follow most of Florida’s 2011 election law.
The Justice Department is asking the state to still offer 96 hours of early voting, in the eight days, which Scott plans to do. Scott’s plan also has voting on a Sunday that previously did not have voting, according to the Associated Press.
But that doesn’t satisfy critics who believe black voters use early voting more on the Sunday immediately preceding the general election. Florida won’t be offering it then. Instead, according to the Florida Division of Elections website, early voting begins 10 days before an election and ends on the third day before any election in which there is a state or federal office race.
It’s an interesting political debate but it’s easy to forget that early voting is not a constitutional right. The administration of elections is a matter for states to regulate.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia offer in-person early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida — even under Scott’s plan — has very generous options for early and absentee voters.
Compare Florida — which allows early voting and no-excuse absentee voting through mail — to New York and South Carolina, states which offer no early voting and absentee voting only with an excuse.
Scott and the GOP may have partisan motives in reducing the early voting window. Democrats may have partisan motives in wanting very liberal early-voting laws.
In the larger picture, though, it’s voter interest that counts. Florida still has relatively relaxed early-voting rules, and Sunshine State voters appear ready, willing and able to get to the polls on the designated days.