In legal battle, groups seek more early voting days
Voter advocacy groups squared off against Gov. Rick Scott's administration Friday in a legal case aimed at forcing Florida to return to the older and longer 14-day schedule of early voting in November, a schedule seen as favoring Democrats. A hearing officer said he would rule on Aug. 24 -- and while that's too late for next week's primary, it could affect the high-stakes Nov. 6 general election.
The legal issue before Administrative Law Judge Thomas Crapps is this: Did former Secretary of State Kurt Browning exceed his authority last year when he directed 62 county election supervisors to implement the Legislature's overhaul of election laws, even though the federal government had not pre-cleared the changes in five other counties still under U.S. electoral supervision? (Browning's memo is below).
Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties are subject to a pre-clearance process under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Scott signed the voting changes (HB 1355) into law 15 months ago, but a panel of three federal judges in Washington has not yet granted pre-clearance, so the five counties must operate under the old election code. What this fight is really about is how many days of early voting are held. Under the new election laws, Pinellas County has eight days of early voting, while Hillsborough still has 14. While Miami-Dade has eight days of early voting, the Keys still have 14.
"When there's one set of election laws on one side of the bridge over Tampa Bay and a different set of election laws on the other side, that is not uniform," said Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida, one of the groups challenging the law.
The ACLU, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and the National Council of La Raza brought the action, claiming that Browning's June 2011 directive created two separate election systems in Florida, which conflicts with a state law that requires "uniformity in the interpretation and implementation of the election laws." The Brennan Center for Justice, a longstanding critic of state laws that it says encourage "voter suppression," is also providing legal advice in the case.
Attorney Mark Herron argued that Browning's action amounted to an "unadopted rule" under the state's Administrative Procedures Act, and that the state should not be able to impose the eight-day early voting schedule. Daniel Nordby, an attorney for the Secretary of State, said Browning's order simply "recognized the state of the law" and was "simply a statement of fact."
The judge wondered if Browning even has the right to issue directives to county election supervisors, who are constitutional officers elected in every county but one (Miami-Dade). On that point the two lawyers agreed, saying it has been an "ongoing issue" for at least a decade.