TALLAHASSEE — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has injected himself into a partisan controversy over Florida's new election laws that include changes in early voting and registering of new voters.
The changes, passed by the Republican Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, antagonized voter advocacy groups and Democrats. They accuse the GOP of seeking to suppress voter turnout in 2012, especially among African-Americans and college students. Republicans say their goal is to bolster faith in the voting process and limit voter fraud.
Holder expressed concern about new voting laws passed in state capitals this year, including in Florida, during a speech Tuesday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library in Texas.
"The answers are clear," Holder said. "We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence, and that are more — not less — accessible to the citizens of this country."
In Florida's case, a pending court review will force the state to hold a presidential primary next month under two separate sets of election laws.
Pinellas is one of 62 counties that will enforce the new law, which includes a reduction in early-voting days. Hillsborough and four other counties will follow the old law.
"We'll put on a full-court press and educate our voters that we are in a different situation," said Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard.
Holder's Justice Department has already approved most routine sections of the new Florida law. But the government must pre-clear four specific and controversial changes to ensure that they protect the rights of minorities in Hillsborough and four other counties — Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.
"We're also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early-voting procedures, including the number of days in the early-voting period," Holder said, according to a copy of the speech posted on the Justice Department website.
The four changes are reducing voting days from 14 to eight, ending on the Saturday before the election instead of Sunday as before, while still allowing a maximum of 96 hours of early voting; requiring third-party groups to submit voter registration forms within 48 hours or face fines; reducing the shelf life of voter signatures on initiative petitions from four years to two; and requiring voters who update their addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots if they moved from another county.
Holder is an appointee of President Barack Obama, who many political observers say must win Florida again to secure a second term in office.
Rather than let Holder's office decide whether Florida's changes are legal, the state opted to seek approval of the most controversial changes from a panel of three federal judges in the District of Columbia. In that case, Holder is the named defendant and numerous voter advocacy groups and individuals, many of them Democrats, have intervened in hoping to see the new provisions struck down.
The case will not be resolved before the Jan. 31 presidential preference primary.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning, Florida's top elections official, said Wednesday he agreed with Holder's comments. "The issue comes down to one's opinion of what is discriminatory," he said. "Obviously, we don't believe that the changes are discriminatory."
"It is heartening that Attorney General Holder has spoken in both moral and legal terms about the right to vote," said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which represents the League of Women Voters in the Florida case. "We hope the Justice Department will enforce the law and protect the voting rights of all Americans in its assessment of new voting laws."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.