Judges Rule New Law Might Reduce Voter Turnout
Around the State
The panel of three judges, each of them an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, determined that the provisions reducing the early voting period “will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote” of minorities living in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe counties.
Florida’s remaining 62 counties are implementing the new regulations, while five counties are precluded from doing so by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to apply for preclearance from either the United States attorney general or the D.C. district court.
The state argued that the legislative changes in the early voting time were in accord with the VRA, because they were not discriminatory in their intent. The court pointed out that under the law intent alone is not what determines whether a change in the voting laws is valid; the foreseen effects must also be taken into account.
“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,” the court ruled.
The court suggested that one way Florida could adjust its early voting scheme without running afoul of the VRA is to reduce the number of days polls are open while simultaneously keeping them open for more hours each day, thus maintaining “exactly the same total number of hours for early voting as under the [pre-2011] law: 96 hours.”
However, the court did uphold another provision of the law, that which requires voters to use a provisional ballot if they fail to notify their elections supervisor of a change of address from one county to another before Election Day. Provisional ballots are counted toward the election only if the voter proves his eligibility within a couple of days after voting.
“We conclude that Florida has satisfied its burden of proving that the changes to the procedures for inter-county movers neither were enacted with a discriminatory purpose nor will have retrogressive effects on minority voters,” the court held.
Several leftist organizations hailed the early voting portion of the ruling, while urging Gov. Rick Scott to suspend enforcement of the new provisions in the remaining 62 counties.
“This is not the end of the voter suppression saga in Florida. Because the [new law] was implemented in the state’s other 62 counties without waiting for preclearance, we now have two sets of election laws in effect in Florida. This dual election system is illegal and will lead to confusion and chaos in November. We are arguing as much in a separate ongoing legal challenge,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida.
“Black voters in Florida used the early voting period to vote in historic numbers in the 2008 elections, with more than half of them casting their ballots during that period. The Voting Rights Act ensured that this important path to political participation for voters of color in Florida would remain open in this upcoming election,” echoed Ryan P. Haygood, director of the Political Participation Group at NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“Now, because of decisions by Governor Scott’s administration to implement the so-called `Voter Suppression Act’ in 62 of Florida’s 67 counties without waiting for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, our state has two sets of elections laws in effect. The current situation must be rectified promptly to avoid voter confusion, disenfranchisement, and chaos like what our state faced in the 2000 presidential election,” state House Democratic Leader-designate Perry Thurston said in a statement.
But Chris Cate, communications director of the Florida Department of State, told Sunshine State News that the state’s Division of Elections has received no reports of voter confusion or disenfranchisement from any of the county supervisors of elections.
Cate said 376,127 Floridians voted early in the 2012 primary election, an increase of about 57 percent from 240,269 who voted early in 2008. That number also represents a slight increase in the percentage of Floridians who voted early: 3.3 percent in 2012, compared to 2.1 percent four years earlier.
Sunshine State News reached out to the ACLU for comment on the apparent lack of incidents and the increased voter turnouts; no reply was forthcoming by Friday evening.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.