TALLAHASSEE — The fight over early voting is escalating in Florida as Gov. Rick Scott seeks agreement among counties for eight days and Democrats demand 12 days.
At issue is whether all 67 counties will operate under one early voting schedule, or five counties will offer more days than all the others.
Days after a federal court ruled that eight days of early voting could depress African-American turnout, Scott's chief elections adviser tried to get five counties to agree to eight days of early voting anyway, for 12 hours a day.
Court approval is critical. Because of past evidence of discrimination, election law changes need clearance from the federal government or federal courts before taking effect in Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe counties.
Because the judges rejected the shorter early voting schedule in those counties last week, the counties must provide up to 14 days of early voting under the old law.
During a conference call with Secretary of State Ken Detzner, four of the five said yes to eight, 12-hour early voting days for the general election, in hopes that would satisfy the federal judges.
Only Monroe said no.
Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer said he would offer 12 days of early voting and eight hours on each day at five sites, from Marathon to Key West.
"The days are more important than the hours," said Sawyer, a Republican who is retiring after 24 years and is not seeking re-election.
Referring to the new eight-hour early voting schedule, he said: "I feel this law does discriminate against minorities and working people. ... We need to show the state and the nation that we respect people's rights."
Monroe is one of only two counties in Florida with a plurality of Republicans that voted for Obama, a Democrat, in 2008.
A spokesman for Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said he would provide eight 12-hour days of early voting in November.
In a deposition in the federal case, Lennard said: "I'll be open every day for 12 hours per day on the general election for sure ... so that we can ensure that we capture as many voters as possible."
The panel of three judges said reducing days of early voting is "analogous to closing polling places" in predominantly black neighborhoods, and they noted that in four of the past five statewide elections in Florida, blacks were much more likely than whites to vote early.
But the judges added that if counties provide early voting on eight days, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., for a maximum 96 hours allowed by the new law, "Florida would likely be able to meet its burden of demonstrating that the overall effect of the changes would not be retrogressive."
Detzner's spokesman, Chris Cate, said the purpose of the call with elections supervisors was to discuss the court's ruling and how to address the judges' concerns.
"It has never been our preference to have two variations of election laws being administered in Florida," Cate said.
The new law, passed by the Legislature in 2011, cuts the days of early voting from 14 to eight, and requires at least eight hours of early voting on the Sunday that falls nine days before Election Day. The old law did not require early voting on any Sundays.
While Scott's administration seeks unanimity on eight days of early voting, Democrats and civil rights activists, all of them supporters of President Barack Obama, seek more days.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, arrived unannounced at Scott's Capitol office Monday morning and asked to meet with him face-to-face.
Scott was in his office at the time, but aide Jon Costello said his schedule was "kind of packed" and that he would meet sometime later.
Joyner said Scott should follow the example of former Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who ordered an expansion of early voting from eight to 12 hours a day before the 2008 election.
Joyner said fewer days of early voting risks having long lines at polling places, which would discourage people from voting, an act she described as voter suppression by Republicans.
"He (Scott) can extend it because the right for people to vote is paramount," Joyner said. "It should be the polestar by which he operates: Giving every Floridian the right to vote."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.