Browning seeks to skirt Obama admin review of Florida's new voter law
In an end-run around the Obama administration's Department of Justice, Secretary of State Kurt Browning on Friday asked a federal district court in Washington, D.C. to approve portions of the elections law passed earlier this year by the Florida Legislature.
Browning, already under fire with a legal challenge to the law , asked the courts to step in where he had previously asked the Department of Justice to go. The law is awaiting federal approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act but civil rights groups have been urging the justice department to invalidate the measure, arguing that it disenfranchises minority voters.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson held a series of rallies in Florida this week opposing the law and the American Civil Liberties Union has sued both Browning and the governor for implementing it. Jackson called Florida "ground zero for the voter suppression movement" and said that Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature wants to restrict minority voters to "dictate the outcome" of the 2012 elections.
Browning said in a statement the reason he sought the three-judge panel's review "is to ensure that the changes to Florida’s election law are judged on their merits by eliminating the risk of a ruling impacted by outside influence. Since the passage of HB 1355, we have seen misinformation surrounding the bill increase. By asking a court to rule on certain aspects of the bill, we are assured of a neutral evaluation based on the facts.”
Browning is asking the court to take control of review of the bulk of the law -- those sections relating to third party voter registrations, petition signature verifications, out-of-county address changes and early voting.
The law has already taken effect in 62 Florida counties but is awaiting federal approval to be implemented in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties, whose history of minority voting discrimination makes them subject to the Voting Rights Act protections.
More from Browning's statement:
In order for these counties to implement the new law, Secretary Browning is seeking a declaratory judgment from a three judge panel that the changes to Florida Election Code fully comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which states that the changes must not have the purpose or effect of “denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority.” The sections of Chapter 2011-40, Laws of Florida that have been sent to the federal district court for approval include:
Section 4 – Relating to 3rd Party Voter Registration Organizations
· Section 4 requires third party voter registration organizations to submit completed voter registration applications to their county supervisors of elections office within 48 hours. Previously, such organizations were allowed 10 days. The change helps ensure the voter registration process is expedited in a reasonable amount of time for the benefit of the new voter and the voter registration organization.
Section 23 – Relating to Petition Signature Verification
· Section 23 requires supervisors of elections to notify the sponsor of a citizen initiative petition proposing constitutional amendments if their petition has been misfiled. It also requires each signer’s home address to be included in a submission, and provides that a signature is valid for two years rather than four years. The changes in this section will add accountability to citizen initiative petitions. They are also expected to help ensure petition signatures remain relevant to the time in which they were provided.
Section 26 – Relating to Out-of-County Address Changes at the Polling Place
· Section 26 requires voters who wish to change their address to a different county at the polling place on the day of an election to vote a provisional ballot. The measure is intended to combat voter fraud by preventing voters from casting a vote in multiple counties. In order to ensure all provisional ballots will be accurately counted, Secretary Browning issued a directive requiring provisional ballots that lack an obvious attempt at fraud be approved in all cases when the voter is registered and eligible to cast a ballot. Chapter 2011-40, Laws of Florida also amended Florida law to allow voters to more easily change their address before casting a ballot. Voters can now change their address by calling, emailing or faxing the county supervisor of elections office.
Section 39 – Relating to Early Voting
· Section 39 increases the maximum number of early voting hours in a day from eight hours to 12 hours a day. The change is expected to benefit voters who wish to vote before or after traditional work hours. The maximum number of hours of early voting remains 96 hours. Therefore, early voting will be over the course of 8 days rather than 14 days. However, weekend voting will be increased to a maximum of 36 hours rather than the previous 16 allowable hours.
The Secretary’s request for approval from the federal district court is in conjunction with a request on June 8, 2011, that the U.S. Department of Justice grant preclearance to the five Florida counties requiring it. The Department of State has since provided supplemental information to DOJ and is awaiting a determination on 76 of the original 80 sections. Four sections, relating to third party voter registration, petition signature verification, out-of-county address changes at the polls and early voting, have been withdrawn from review by the DOJ.