The state of Florida is having trouble convincing a federal court that its reduction in early voting days does not discriminate against African-Americans.
One reason is that the state's professional witness was so utterly unconvincing. The judges said so themselves.
A panel of three federal judges ruled Aug. 16 that reducing early voting days would be discriminatory in five counties under U.S. voting rights oversight: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.
The basic question was whether the state's decision to reduce early voting from 14 days to eight has the effect of "denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" in those counties.
To argue its case, the state turned to M.V. (Trey) Hood III, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
A native of Waco, Texas, Hood earned his Ph.D. at Texas Tech and since 1999 has been at UGA, where he teaches classes in American government, Southern politics and legislative politics.
In his own deposition, he acknowledged he's no expert at early voting.
Hood analyzed early voting in the past seven statewide Florida elections and concluded that black voters would not be disenfranchised by fewer early voting days.
In his analysis, he gave little weight to the 2008 Florida election won by Barack Obama, calling it an "outlier."
Hood also argued that white voters would be most affected by the reduction in early voting days because more whites vote early.
The judges called that an example of Hood's "methodological flaws."
In analyzing early turnout data, Hood at times included Hispanics with blacks. Another methodological mess, the judges said: The issue is not how many people in each race vote early, but the rate at which they vote early.
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What the judges found was that in four of the past five statewide elections, the proportion of blacks who voted early far exceeded that of whites. In 2008, 54 percent of African-Americans who cast ballots voted at early voting sites, twice the rate of whites.
In the game-within-a-game debate between experts and statistics over the effects of changes to early voting in Florida, the panel of three federal judges found that Dr. Hood was no match for the other side's expert, Dr. Paul Gronke.
Gronke, a political scientist, runs the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He was hired by the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, League of Women Voters and National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic voter advocacy group.
Leaning heavily on Gronke's analysis, the judges concluded that, yes, the effect of early-voting changes would be harmful to blacks, but they suggested a possible remedy: The five affected counties should offer early voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for eight days from Oct. 27 through Nov. 3, including one Sunday, Oct. 28.
The state is now trying to win the judges' approval of that 96-hour early voting schedule. But one county, Monroe, insists on 12 early voting days of eight hours each.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.