TALLAHASSEE — Early voting in Florida begins Saturday, nearly a week later than past years — and with wide variations in hours from county to county.
The majority of voters will have access to the maximum possible hours — 96 — spread over eight straight 12-hour days. That's because supervisors of elections in all large counties chose that schedule, seeking to maximize turnout and reduce chances of long lines on Election Day and confusion from the change in early voting days.
The Legislature last year reduced the number of days from 14 to eight, ending on a Saturday, three days before the Nov. 6 election. The state had required 96 hours of early voting, but the law was changed to allow at least 48 hours and a maximum of 96, while eliminating early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day.
Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark expects lines and has added booths at all three early voting sites to accommodate crowds. She's concerned because people who vote absentee in her office are taking at least seven minutes to vote because of the historically long ballot.
"That's where the bottleneck will be, because of the length of the ballot," Clark said.
Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are among 35 counties offering the full 96 hours of early voting, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
"Miami-Dade voters are accustomed to the availability of early voting for 96 hours," said Christina White, the deputy county election supervisor. "To minimize the inconvenience to our voters after the change in law, we felt it was in their best interest to continue offering the maximum numbers of hours allowable by law."
But it's a different story in Hernando, home to more than 123,000 voters where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
Hernando has the fewest early voting hours in the state (62), including 22 hours on the weekend when the law allows a maximum of 36.
"Financially I just can't do it. I can't pay the extra overtime," Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said. "I really can't afford to. I would love to."
When Hernando's neighboring counties of Pasco, Citrus and Sumter open early voting sites for 12 hours on Saturdays and Sundays, the two Hernando centers will open later and close earlier.
Hernando will offer early voting for eight hours on each of two Saturdays and for six hours on Sunday.
Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Party, said the cutback in early voting hours is all the more reason why Democrats are using automated phone calls to urge voters to cast absentee ballots instead.
"We do have a net reduction in overall early voting hours," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who analyzes state election laws. "That is a concern to me, and it was a concern to the Justice Department, too."
Gov. Rick Scott's administration spent a year and nearly $500,000 in legal fees successfully defending the shorter eight-day schedule from lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocacy groups that claimed it was a Republican plot to suppress voter turnout.
A panel of three federal judges approved the eight-day schedule, but not until all five counties under U.S. voting rights supervision agreed to the 96-hour timetable. Those counties are Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry, the only ones affected by the court's decision.
The judges said that if a county cut early voting to as little as six hours a day, it would be analogous to "closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts . . . (and) would impose a sufficiently material burden to cause some reasonable minority voters not to vote."
In their August decision, the justices noted that in the 2008 presidential election in Florida, black voters voted early at twice the rate of white voters and were much more likely to vote in the first five days of the early voting period — the days that state lawmakers eliminated.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he supports early voting decisions by county elections officials.
"Supervisors are very sensitive to the needs of their constituents," Detzner said. "They have good judgment."
Because the new law gives more discretion to county elections officials, about 30 mostly small counties will offer less early voting time than they did before:
• Gadsden County, the only Florida county with a majority of black voters, will have 72 hours of early voting, including seven hours Sunday.
• Osceola County, in the heart of the I-4 corridor with a fast-growing population of Hispanics, will have 12 hours of early voting every day except Sunday, when six centers will be open for seven hours, from noon to 7 p.m.
• Seven counties will offer 18 total hours of early voting on the weekend, the minimum allowed by state law. They are Bradford, Franklin, Liberty, Madison, Okeechobee, Suwannee and Gilchrist.
In tiny Trenton, west of Gainesville, Gilchrist County Supervisor of Elections Connie Sanchez said voters don't believe voting should be allowed on Sunday for religious reasons.
"It's the day of the Lord, and being in a small county, that's just the way we feel," Sanchez said. "We told them we have to be open for eight days in a row, so we're open for the minimum hours on Sunday."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.