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Elections supervisors in key counties refuse to implement new law

TALLAHASSEE — The elections supervisor in Rick Scott's home county refuses to recognize a new law the governor signed out of concerns that the U.S. Department of Justice hasn't decided whether it violates a law protecting minority voters.

In a letter to the state's elections division, Collier County Elections Supervisor Jennifer Edwards pointed out that her county is one of five in Florida that needs Justice Department pre-approval "or preclearance" under the 1965 Voting Rights Act before it makes any voting changes.

"Since assuming office in 2000, it has been my practice to meticulously comply with the requirements," she wrote May 21. "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that due to our 'covered' status, I will not implement any changes resulting from the Governor's signing of CS/CS/HB 1355 until we receive notification that the bill has been precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice."

Supervisors from the other four Florida counties — Hillsborough, Monroe, Hendry and Hardee — joined Edwards in her opposition. At the same time, the state was planning to inform the five counties that they wouldn't have to comply until the Justice Department gives its tentative "preclearance" approval, said Chris Cate, a Florida Division of Elections spokesman.

"We suggested the counties requiring preclearance wait to implement the new elections law until the DOJ has given their approval," Cate said.

Edwards couldn't be reached Friday, but her office said she felt compelled to write the letter because the state's elections division was rapidly pushing ahead with the new law, specifically by requiring all 67 elections supervisors to begin daily reporting of new voter registrations submitted by third-party groups.

The new law cracks down on third-party voter-registration groups activities, makes Election Day polling-precinct changes tougher for voters and reduces the number of days early voting is available.

Republicans say the law is designed to crack down on fraud and stop groups like the now-defunct ACORN from conducting massive controversial voter-registration drives.

But Democrats and advocates for minorities say the provisions of the new law could disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic voters.

"Minorities are disproportionately affected by this crackdown," said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney with the Advancement Project voting-rights group. "Minorities tend to be disproportionately more likely to change their address, to use early voting and to register to vote with third-party registration groups."

Lieberman said the Justice Department will look at the data and render a decision in the coming months. It could strike down the entire voting law or just those portions that have a "retrogressive effect" on minority voting.

A spokesman for Scott, Brian Burgess, said the governor was confident that the law wouldn't harm voters.

The bill's House sponsor, Republican Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, said the only thing "prejudicial and discriminatory" about the issue was the description of minority voters as being different from Caucasians and Anglos.

Baxley said the law allows for the same number of early voting hours — 96 — that existed before. He said third-party registration groups should face fines for holding on to registration cards for more than two days.

"This is not targeted toward any racial, ethnic or gender population," he said. "I heard all this stuff about Jim Crow laws and lynchings — how inappropriate."

He said voters changing their precincts on Election Day would have to cast a provisional ballot to make sure there was some type of record that made it easier to identify voters who were bused in and out of a city to unfairly influence elections. Provisional ballots are easier to challenge.

Lieberman said they won't count at all under a quirk in state law, a statement Baxley disputes.

Supervisors of elections like the provision requiring third-party groups to file voter cards quickly, but some object to the Legislature limiting early voting during general elections.

"A lot of things in this new law don't make sense," said Harry Sawyer, Monroe's election supervisor. "They address early voting by cutting the days in half. They say they want to stop fraud, but then they pass a law prohibiting poll workers from asking about addresses — and that's the best way for us to stop fraud at the polls."

Like Edwards and Sawyer, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Earl Lennard said he would wait on the federal government — regardless of what the state said.

"We will not implement the law until such time as the Department of Justice preclears," Lennard said. Lennard said he's still waiting on state officials to inform him that they're asking for a federal review.

The elections supervisors said they were surprised at the speed with which Scott's administration began pushing the new law. As a result, Edwards wrote her letter to Secretary of State Kurt Browning to put the state on notice that this could cause complications with the Voting Rights Act.

"Initially, it seemed they hadn't thought about the implications," said Edwards' chief deputy, Tim Durham. "Last week, we started to receive instructions to put 1355 in effect. … I e-mailed and asked 'what about preclearance requirements?' And you could hear crickets chirping."

Elections supervisors in key counties refuse to implement new law 05/27/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 10:58pm]
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