A federal court ruled that Florida cannot cut the number of early voting days from 12 to eight in several counties because it could “disproportionately affect” minorities.
The three-judge panel cited protections under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in its decision, which prevents localities from making certain changes to voting rules without clearance from federal officials. Specifically, five of Florida’s 67 counties are protected, the court noted.
The Florida legislature approved the reduction in hours last year in a bill that included a variety of changes to the state’s election rules and Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law May 19, 2011.
The judges wrote in their decision:
We cannot, at this time, preclear Florida’s early voting changes because the State has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters. Specifically, the State has not proven that the changes will be nonretrogressive if the covered counties offer only the minimum number of early voting hours that they are required to offer under the new statute, which would constitute only half the hours required under the prior law.
In writing their opinion the panel did leave room for the law to go forward as long as the maximum number of hours allowed under it, rather than standard practices, were utilized for early voting. The judges cited the inclusion of additional weekend voting time, Sunday in particular, as a way to offset the impact of less days of available voting.
The record evidence persuades us that, if the covered counties offer the maximum available early voting hours each day on a standard 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule, the negative effect of reducing the number of days from 12 to 8 would likely be offset by the ameliorative effects of adding non-working weekday hours, a Sunday, and additional weekend hours.
In other words, if there are 12 hours of early voting available each weekday (ideally 7 am to 7 pm, which opens up traditionally non-working hours) over the course of those eight early voting days, plus an additional Sunday of voting, Florida could convince the federal court that its new law would not disproportionately impact minorities.
The court also upheld a separate new rule under the law that impacts Florida residents who move counties and then want to re-register and cast their vote in their new county on voting day. Although, the judges found that such “inter-county mover” changes disproportionately affect minority voters, because they are more likely to make those address updates directly at the poll, it ultimately did not find enough evidence that the new rule would prevent minorities from casting a ballot.
The new law will require such movers to fill out a provisional ballot at the poll instead of a regular ballot.