Florida’s attempt to restrict the number of early voting days in November’s presidential election has been rejected by a three-judge panel because of the impact the proposed change could have on minority voters.
The ruling came in a lawsuit Florida brought against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in August 2011 to compel approval of a cutback in the number of early voting days to eight from 14 and curtailed voting hours.
“The state has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters,” the three-judge panel wrote in its 119-page decision, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington.
Fights over voting access are underway in states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama and South Carolina ahead of the Nov. 6 presidential election. At stake are proposed changes in voting procedures that Republican-controlled legislatures said were necessary to prevent fraud and help elections run smoothly. Democrats said the steps were aimed at limiting votes for President Barack Obama.
Last year, the Florida legislature, which was controlled by Republicans, voted a series of changes into the state’s election procedures, including the reduction of early voting days to eight from 14. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Florida has to pre-clear any proposed changes in five counties with the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court.
“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 NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for the voting rights of African-Americans, said in an e-mailed statement. “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.”
The court also ruled that there were ways Florida could change its early voting procedures that would not impact minority voters.
“We are very pleased that the court pre-cleared the out-of-county address change provision and said that Florida would ‘likely’ satisfy its burden of proof on the early voting change if the covered counties offer the maximum number of authorized hours,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State.
The panel approved a new measure for voters who move within the state, requiring them to cast a provisional ballot if they vote in a new county and seek to change their address on Election Day.
“There is no question that African Americans disproportionately rely on early in-person voting and changing the rules is likely to result in fewer of them voting,” said Corrine Brown, a Democratic Congresswoman from Florida. “The court rightly saw through the state’s failure to provide any explanation for restricting the opportunity to vote.”
Brown filed a federal lawsuit in Jacksonville in July along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Jacksonville chapter and the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee to expand early voting days and hours in the entire state.
Florida is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that need approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington to change election procedures.
The three-judge panel said it would review separately Florida’s request to throw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was enacted to prevent racial discrimination in voting, as unconstitutional.
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