TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday endorsed eight 12-hour days of early voting in five key Florida counties, including Hillsborough and Monroe, all but ending a long-running legal battle that threatened to disrupt the November election.
Attorney General Eric Holder filed a motion with a panel of three judges in Washington, D.C., saying that the government supports judicial approval of Florida's shorter early voting schedule, as long as the five counties offer the maximum possible hours of early voting: 96 over eight days, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
"The United States does not oppose judicial preclearance of the early voting plans submitted for the covered counties," the government said.
Pending the judges' approval, early voting in Florida will begin Oct. 27 and end Nov. 3 and will be held on one Sunday, Oct. 28. The new law prohibits early voting on the Sunday just prior to the election.
Democrats and voter advocacy groups had criticized the shortened early voting schedule, calling it part of a broader Republican strategy to suppress turnout in Florida. The issue of early voting is highly charged because statistics show it is most popular among black voters, a crucial voting bloc in the presidential election in Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, called the latest federal action "the most significant sign to date that Florida's new early voting laws are fair and can be implemented statewide."
The judges themselves had suggested the timetable as a way of resolving a legal confrontation that has dragged on for more than a year. Anything less than 96 hours, they ruled last month, would disenfranchise African-American voters in the nation's largest battleground state.
Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties are under federal oversight to ensure that changes to voting laws do not discriminate based on race. They had been operating under the old law, which allowed up to 14 days of early voting.
What broke the legal logjam was Monroe County's statement to the court that it would offer the full 96 hours of early voting in the Florida Keys if the judges approved that timetable.
Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer Jr. insisted that the reduction of early voting days would have a "retrogressive impact on minority voters." But he added: "If the court pre-clears the early voting change for Florida, I will follow the requirements of the law, as I have for nearly two-and-a-half decades."
Sawyer said he prepared his statement with the help of Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami.
Sawyer, a Republican who's not running for re-election, drew Scott's wrath for refusing to join the other four counties in agreeing to eight 12-hour early voting days.
Sawyer insisted that more days of early voting and for fewer hours better serves the voters in the elongated Keys. He said he resented Scott and state elections officials interfering in the handling of an election, which he called a local responsibility.
"I don't think the governor has any business sticking his nose in elections," Sawyer said.
The state Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, rewrote Florida's voting laws last year and reduced the days of early voting from 14 to eight.
When the state asked the three judges to approve the change, the Justice Department, backed by the ACLU and other groups, formally objected.
In their ruling last month, the judges noted that under the new law, county supervisors of election could legally offer as few as 48 hours of early voting, or six hours a day for eight days.
"This dramatic reduction in a form of voting disproportionately used by African-Americans would be analogous to (although certainly not the same as) closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts," the judges wrote.
State officials have insisted that all 67 counties operate under the same early voting schedule to minimize confusion and avoid potential legal problems due to a lack of uniformity in voting procedures.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.