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Federal Court Rejects Provisions of Florida’s Early Voting Rules as Discriminatory to Blacks

| August 20, 2012

Florida’s new schemes can have a flimsy feel. (BBC)

Facing a potentially razor thin race in a critical swing state, a three-judge federal panel has rejected as discriminatory a provision of a state law passed last year that reduced the number of early voting days, but offered Florida election officials a way to make the changes comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

The ruling marked the latest step in a widespread legal battle over HB 1355, a sweeping 2011 overhaul of the state’s elections laws that supporters say is a crackdown on fraud but critics have labeled the “Voter Suppression Act.” The bill passed both Republican-led chambers on party line votes.

In the ruling, U.S. Circuit Court (appellate) Judge Merrick Garland and District Court Judges Colleen Kollar-Kotelly and Ellen Huvelle said the reduction of early voting days hurt black voters, but upheld new restrictions on when voters can change their addresses on the state’s voter registration rolls.

The immediate effect of the ruling from the panel in Washington, D.C. — part of a process known as preclearance — was to invalidate the early-voting limits in the five counties that must apply for federal approval of any voting changes because of a history of racial or language discrimination.

The impact of the panel’s decision was limited, however, because local elections officials couldn’t implement the revisions in those five counties — Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe — without preclearance.

Under HB 1355, with passed the House 77-38 and was approved by the Senate on a 25-13 vote, the number of days for casting ballots before an election was reduced from 14 to eight. Local elections officials could decide to keep polling places open for up to 12 hours a day, to ensure the same number of early voting hours, but they were not required to do so.

The judges said that change violates the Voting Rights Act because black voters are more likely to vote early than white voters.

“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 than under the benchmark law,” they wrote.

Critics of the legislation hailed the ruling.

“We have stated from the beginning that this law was passed to be a roadblock for minority voters and to make it harder for them to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

But the ruling also leaves an opening for the state to keep the change. The judges wrote that a preclearance request definitively including 12 hours of early voting per day in the affected counties would likely pass muster.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott said in an email Friday that the state is already working on making that change.

“The next step is figuring out how best to satisfy the court’s guidance related to early voting in time for the November election,” wrote the spokesman, Lane Wright. “Our general counsel and attorneys for the Department of State are analyzing the 119-page ruling to determine the best way to proceed.”

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the bill but said the early-voting provision was a Senate idea, said he considered the ruling a favorable one because he thought most supervisors would take advantage of the 12-hour days. He also applauded the decision upholding restrictions on when voters who move from one county to another can change their address.

“I think, over time, we’re finding that this statute is reasonable,” he said.

Overall, 78 of the 80 changes submitted to federal officials have been approved, with all but three of them getting the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Justice. Preclearance is usually done through the DOJ, but state officials headed to court with the most controversial changes when it became obvious that the agency was prepared to reject them.

Thursday’s ruling, at least temporarily, continues a situation in which some provisions of HB 1355 are in place in most counties but will not be enforced in the preclearance counties. Critics say that violates state laws requiring a uniform elections system — an argument that is also being played out in other challenges to the law.

“The current situation must be rectified promptly to avoid voter confusion, disenfranchisement and chaos like what our state faced in the 2000 presidential election,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, who is scheduled to lead his party’s House caucus later this year.

A separate challenge to that aspect of the law’s implementation is already winding its way through the Department of Administrative Hearings — though the DOAH case is likely to be just the first phase of that legal battle. A separate federal court struck down new regulations on voter registration groups in May.

And the three-judge panel still must rule on two more issues: Whether a new version of the voter-registration regulations revised after the May ruling can be precleared; and what to do with a state challenge to portions of the Voting Rights Act.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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8 Responses for “Federal Court Rejects Provisions of Florida’s Early Voting Rules as Discriminatory to Blacks”

  1. question says:

    Republicans can lie, cheat & steal
    Exhibit A ..
    but there are enough honest people/Judges in America to stand up for why this nation was created…not the least of which FREEDOM TO VOTE.
    Not just if and when geese are flying backwards during a solar equinox.

  2. rrr says:

    Why is it every time there’s a controversy the race card is played?? I’m so sick and tired of this driving us further apart and making everyone distrustful. Up until 3 1/2 years ago I thought we were getting along pretty good.. I think I know why this happened and I’m sure many of the rest of you do to..

  3. Merrill Shapiro says:

    Is anybody researching the history and incidence of voter fraud in Florida and throughout our country? Is it true that more voters have been hit by lightning going to and from the polls than the number of voters convicted of voter fraud in the State of Florida?

    From the Pew Research Center:
    In the 2008 general election, 2.2 million votes were lost because of registration problems, according to a survey by researchers at the California Institute of Technology/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Voting Technology Project. Additionally, 5.7 million people faced a registration related problem that needed to be resolved before voting, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

    … the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, conducted a massive investigation between 2002 and 2006. Only 120 people were charged and 86 convicted during a period when nearly 200 million votes were cast in federal elections. According to a New York Times review of the Justice Department’s efforts, just 26 of those cases involved voting by people who were ineligible, multiple voting or registration fraud — the kinds of offenses that an ID law might catch.

    A 2005 report by the Brennan Center found the most common causes of voting irregularities were not people impersonating others at the polls but clerical mistakes, computer errors and instances where two people with the same or similar names were flagged as the same person voting twice. The Brennan study warned that voter ID laws are far more likely to prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots than to prevent fraud.

  4. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    How about let’s stop using the term “Race Card”. We all know it originated during the OJ trial and has been turned into the modern day “hear no evil see no evil”. It seems like anytime a non-minority wants to put blinders on in regard to bias they cry wolf -” race card is being played”. The foundation of the US was built off of laws and policy’s that embraced bias and racism and unfortunately people today still benefit from those laws and policy’s. Barack Obama being elected didn’t mean a mass conversion away from bigotry took place. If the Jewish system can cry foul at the drop of the hat so can any other group. Laws don’t change people hearts. You don’t have to have an African American or any other race over for dinner but if one is going to go to bat about race and policy’s we need to all walk in the shoes of others while researching and commenting.

    • question says:

      “How about let’s stop using the term Race Card”.
      What a refreshing thought. Glad someone finally brought that up. Would like for that term to go away…but on the other hand it does inform. I have never seen it used by anyone other than those who have negative issues with minorities. Sort of used when vocabulary not sufficiently broad enough to state a person’s frustration in that area. If the term were to be eliminated…it would force a more truthful, upfront discussion. One would have to say what they really feel without this little piece of shorthand/code.

  5. Outsider says:

    The idea that a small number of convictions means voter fraud doesn’t exist isn’t valid. Some states, such as Wisconsin allow a fraudster to claim ignorance as defense to charges of voting illegally. Then of course, if a voting district leans heavily in favor of one party, there may be little interest in investigating charges of fraud. The whole problem could easily be solved with a solid voter identification system in place, but of course the Democrats are fighting this at every opportunity. Even Mexico requires a government issued voter ID card with the voter’s fingerprint, a bar code and a holographic image to deter tampering. What is the problem with that? Don’t tell me some people won’t be able to get to the ID office; I’m sure the same people who are pushing brain-dead people from nursing homes to the elections office will happily get them to the appropriate facility to acquire an ID.

  6. Outsider says:

    And here’s something else to consider: 1 in 8 voter registrations in the U.S. are inaccurate.

  7. Outsider says:

    And of course, IF anyone tried to falsely register and vote via absentee ballot, these voter registration would be on them like flies on honey:

    No, rest assured folks, the voting police are on the job!

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