TALLAHASSEE — Florida is challenging the federal government's long-standing authority to review and approve new voting laws in five counties in order to protect minority voters from discrimination.
The counties, which include Hillsborough and Monroe in the Florida Keys, find themselves at the center of a growing legal battle as the 2012 presidential election unfolds in the nation's largest battleground state.
Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, asked a federal court Tuesday to remove the five counties from the voting law preclearance process after 40 years. The other counties are Collier, Hardee and Hendry.
At issue is a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered a centerpiece of historic civil rights legislation pushed by President Lyndon Johnson in an era when black voters, mostly in the South, routinely confronted poll taxes, literacy tests and other racially motivated barriers to voting.
The Republican-controlled Legislature last spring approved sweeping changes to Florida's election laws, and four of the most controversial provisions remain suspended in the five affected counties pending the federal review.
The provisions reduce the number of days of early voting from 14 to eight; require voters who move from county-to-county and who update their addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots; require third-party groups that register voters to submit forms within 48 hours or face penalties; and reduce the validity of voters' signatures on initiative petitions from four years to two.
Critics, chiefly Democrats and voter advocacy groups, complained that the changes were designed to suppress Democratic turnout in a year when President Barack Obama might need a victory in Florida to secure his re-election.
In a statement, Browning acknowledged the need for laws to protect voters from discrimination. But he added: "There is no constitutional basis to single out five Florida counties . . . based solely on information from decades ago."
The state argues that the 40-year-old formula the federal government uses to determine pre-clearance is "arbitrary and irrational" and should no longer apply to Florida.
The state said the five affected Florida counties were subjected to federal preclearance in 1972 because less than half of the adults in the counties were registered to vote, they had a non-English speaking population of more than 5 percent and election materials were published only in English.
One of the groups fighting Florida in the courts reacted harshly to the state's legal maneuver.
"The governor's taxpayer-funded shenanigans continue," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "(He is) now seeking to set aside landmark civil rights legislation that protects racial and language minorities in Florida."
By their latest action, Simon said, Scott and Browning prove that they would rather "fight to suppress the vote than follow landmark civil rights laws."
Dan McCrea, president of the Florida Voters Coalition, said it was "particularly shameful" that Scott and Browning would spend tax dollars to oppose a federal law designed to protect the rights of voters.
The state hired the Washington law firm Wiley Rein as special counsel in the case at a cost not to exceed $85,000 plus up to $10,000 in costs.
In the most recent case with similarities, the U.S. District Court in Washington last month rejected a claim brought by Shelby County, Ala., a jurisdiction also subject to the preclearance requirement.
Judge John Bates wrote in his 151-page decision that Congress extended the preclearance requirement in 2006 after hearing voluminous testimony that discriminatory voting practices continued to exist.
"This Court declines to overturn Congress' carefully considered judgment," Bates wrote.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.