Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Politics

Over objections, state asks court to approve early voting plan

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is asking a federal court to approve eight 12-hour days of early voting in five counties, saying it would not suppress African-American votes in November.

Gov. Rick Scott's administration filed papers with U.S. District Court in Washington, saying 96 hours of early voting, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for eight days, including a Sunday, would meet the Voting Rights Act's requirement that black voters are not harmed.

Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties agreed to that schedule in an effort to win statewide approval of the new schedule from a panel of three federal judges. Those four counties and Monroe, in the Keys, cannot enact changes to voting without federal approval.

The state acted despite Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer's refusal to join the other four counties in the state's request. Monroe, the fifth county under U.S. oversight, wants 12 days of early voting for eight hours each day, saying that's more convenient for Keys voters.

The court itself suggested the 12-hour schedule as a way for Florida to secure preclearance in the five counties, a process that began last year.

"Having invited Florida to bring such a plan to the court for review, the court should permit this amendment," the state said in court papers.

The judges last week denied the state's petition for preclearance, saying the new law permitted a minimum of 48 hours of early voting that would discourage African-Americans from voting.

Without knowing the counties' early voting plans, the judges said, they could not be sure that blacks would not face obstacles to voting.

The state's request applies only to the five preclearance counties. Elsewhere, supervisors of election still have the discretion to schedule early voting, from a minimum of 48 hours or six hours a day for eight days to a maximum of 96, or 12 hours a day for eight days.

The new law, unlike the old, requires that early voting be held on one Sunday, Oct. 28.

The Legislature last year adopted the eight-day timetable in place of what was 14 days of early voting, a decision that sparked claims of voter suppression and lawsuits from civil rights and voter advocacy groups and Democrats.

In four of the past five statewide elections, blacks were much more likely than whites to vote early.

Democrats criticized Scott for the state's latest legal move.

Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the incoming House Democratic leader, said the eight-day, 12-hour plan "fails to give adequate flexibility to meet the real-life needs of voters. … Once more, Gov. Scott is trampling on the rights of Floridians."

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the new law provides more flexibility by allowing early voting sites to stay open later.

"Early voting is now more flexible than it was before the law changed," Wright said.

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