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Administrative Challenge to Voting Rules Filed

July 2, 2012 - 6:00pm

Sen. Arthenia Joyner and a pair of voting-rights organizations have filed an administrative challenge to the state's decision to push ahead with a new elections law in 62 of Florida's 67 counties.

The filing, which the groups announced Monday, is the latest chapter in an ongoing legal saga over who will be allowed to vote in the state's elections and what the rules will be for casting ballots.

Florida's electoral votes could decide whether President Barack Obama is re-elected in November, while a number of competitive congressional races are unfolding and all 160 seats in the Legislature are up for election.

The newest challenge specifically addresses the state's decision to allow the portions of the new elections law, passed in 2011, to take effect in all but five counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Any changes to voting procedures in those counties have to be approved by the Department of Justice or a three-judge federal panel because of a history of racial or language discrimination.

Exempting five counties from some of the law's most controversial provisions -- including a reduction in early-voting days and limits on when voters can change their addresses at the polling place -- creates a two-tiered system and violates state law requiring elections rules to be uniform across the state, the challenge says.

"These are not trivial changes of laws or practices that might be applied differently to allow for local idiosyncrasies; they bear directly on rights that are central to the electoral process," the complaint says. "The establishment of this dual regulatory system by the secretary is the antithesis of uniformity."

The challenge was filed with the Department of Administrative Hearings by Joyner, D-Tampa; the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida; and the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

It also says the directions issued by the state are beyond the powers of Secretary of State Ken Detzner or his predecessor, Kurt Browning, who initially ordered the 62 counties to follow the law. And it cites the purported absurdity of requiring voters in one part of multicounty districts to vote under one set of rules while voters in other areas of those districts follow different procedures.

"Governor [Rick] Scotts insistence that the state go forward with two different sets of voting laws and procedures in different counties not only violates Florida law requiring uniform elections throughout the state, it is a recipe for chaos and another embarrassment for our state, Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.

The preclearance process in Washington, D.C., remains ongoing after Browning decided to remove some of the most controversial parts of the law from a preclearance examination at the Department of Justice and move instead to the three-judge panel. In May, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle struck down new rules for third-party voter-registration organizations; the state and opponents of the law are working to negotiate a settlement.

Neither Scott nor Detzner's office immediately returned requests for comment.

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