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PolitiFact Florida: Flexibility in early voting could mean fewer hours to vote

Gov. Rick Scott's elections chief is defending a law that reduces the number of days for early voting, arguing that polling places will stay open the same number of hours they are now.

Yes, fewer days, Secretary of State Kurt Browning wrote in a Monday guest column in the St. Petersburg Times. But longer hours on those days.

"The number of days polls remain open has been reduced from 14 possible days to eight days," Browning wrote. But "the total number of hours available for early voting will remain the same."

Later, Browning added: "Today, the following remains true: Early voting remains at 96 hours, with greater flexibility for counties."

We wanted to see if Browning is right.

Before Scott signed the elections changes into law on May 19, statutes required that early voting begin 15 days before and end two days prior to an election, or 14 days overall.

Further, statutes required that supervisors provide eight hours of early voting during weekdays sometime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and a total of eight hours during each of two weekends. Over the 14 days prior to a Tuesday election — two weekends and 10 weekdays — that means that supervisors had been required to conduct early voting for a minimum of 96 hours.

The law that Scott signed, HB 1355, changes several provisions of the early voting requirements.

The new version requires that early voting begin 10 days before and end three days prior to an election, or eight days overall. The new statute says early voting must be available for six hours each of the eight days, and no more than 12 hours per day at each polling site.

We'll repeat that — under the new law, early voting must be available six hours a day for eight days, or a total of 48 hours, and can be available for up to 12 hours a day for eight days, or 96 hours.

In other words, local supervisors of elections will have the ability to cut the number of hours of early voting in half. They will, however, have to increase the number of hours of early voting on weekends from 16 to 18 hours.

What will local supervisors choose to do?

For many, it's too early to say. In Pinellas County, Republican Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said the longer early voting days would be more convenient for people who want to vote before or after work. But Clark also has been critical of early voting, saying in 2008 that early voting "does not increase voter turnout," just "election costs." Clark spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock said the Pinellas supervisor is not against extending early voting hours as allowed by the new law, but has yet to adopt a schedule for the 2012 elections.

But in Jacksonville and Duval County in northeast Florida, Republican supervisor Jerry Holland told voters not to expect 12-hour-a-day early voting, according to the Florida Times-Union. "The 12 hours is just not practical for us," Holland said.

Browning and his spokesman Chris Cate say the flexibility in the law is to help rural counties, who might not need to staff 12 hours of early voting for eight straight days, not big counties unwilling to hold 12 hours of daily early voting.

But the law leaves the decision up to local election supervisors.

And while Cate said his boss would try to pressure bigger counties to hold 96 hours of voting in 2012, there's no guarantee he will be successful. And there's no guarantee every secretary after Browning will feel the same way.

Ultimately, the early voting flexibility may save some smaller jurisdictions taxpayer dollars, but it's also the root of the problem when considering Browning's claim.

While he noted in the op-ed piece that rural counties may schedule less than the current 96 hours of voting, he failed to note that the same option is available to every county in Florida regardless of size. In fact, local supervisors could cut the total number of hours of early voting from 96 to 48 if they chose because it's what the new law allows.

However, they also do have the ability to keep 96 hours of early voting by increasing voting to 12 hours a day. So, in essence, a requirement of 96 hours of early voting has been replaced by an option of 96 hours.

We rate this claim Barely True.

PolitiFact Florida: Flexibility in early voting could mean fewer hours to vote

05/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 12:18am]

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