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Florida: Prepare for another voting fiasco

Only 12 years ago, Florida was embarrassed by a voting tornado. As the nation became familiar with hanging chads and butterfly ballots, Florida was the State That Couldn't Vote Straight.

Fellow Floridians, we have a similar humiliation headed for us now. Different from a tornado — which appears almost without warning — this menacing hurricane has been lumbering toward us for over a year. Here's its track to date.

In 2011 the Legislature passed and the governor signed the most sweeping changes in Florida's election laws in decades. The alleged rationale was the prevention of voter fraud, although no or only trivial instances of irregularities could be identified. The lingering suspicion was that the real reason was suppression of voting by specific groups of Floridians.

Of all the changes, the most inexplicable were those to the early voting process. This post-2000 reform was heralded by Gov. Jeb Bush as contributing to increased voter participation. There was not the tiniest evidence of inappropriate use.

In spite of this, the days for early voting were reduced from a maximum of 14 to eight. The Sunday before Tuesday's Election Day was eliminated as an early voting date. The 67 county supervisors of elections were given the discretion to set the total number of early voting hours at between 48 and 96.

As five of Florida's 67 counties are under the federal Voting Rights Act, approval by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal appellate court is required for any change in election procedure in those five counties. At the request of the state, the appellate court for the District of Columbia was the venue for this review.

On Aug. 17 the court ruled: "Florida is left with nothing to rebut either the testimony of the defendants' witnesses or the commonsense judgment that a dramatic reduction in the form of voting that is disproportionately used by African-Americans would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot." This conclusion was based in part on the finding that in 2008, African-Americans cast 22 percent of the total early vote, even though blacks are just 13 percent of Florida's registered voters.

The state was given a limited get-out-of-jail-free card. If the supervisors of election in the five Voting Rights Act counties would agree to use the 96 maximum hours, the state could petition the court to be allowed to reduce the number of early voting days to eight.

Gov. Rick Scott immediately contacted the supervisors urging them to do so. Four have agreed. But not Republican Harry Sawyer of Monroe County, the Florida Keys.

The governor cajoled Sawyer to fall into line. Sawyer refused based on his knowledge that the voters in his community were working people, at home for dinner, not likely to use the hours late into the night. According to Sawyer, more early voting days is what would encourage more voting in Monroe County: "We're supposed to make it easy for voters, not hard."

Scott intimated he might remove Sawyer from his post of 24 years. Sawyer stood his ground; he would abide by the federal court's opinion.

The governor, probably inadvertently, took on the wrong man from the wrong place. Scott might not have been aware that 30 years ago in a dispute with the federal government over border patrol, Monroe County seceded from the union and raised the flag of the Conch Republic. For several joyous weeks the citizens of the world's newest republic tweaked their former masters in Washington, requiring visas for officials to enter its territory (visas which were routinely denied) and preparing to send its minister of foreign affairs to Buenos Aires to settle the Falklands/Malvinas war through shuttle diplomacy. All of this was to the beat of Jimmy Buffett songs and a not-inconsiderable number of margaritas.

Governor, this is not a bunch that is going to lie down and surrender.

While this latest rebellion is going on in Florida's southernmost county, the supervisors of election in the other 62 counties are deciding how many hours of voting to authorize. This means Florida is likely to have numerous forms of early voting and almost as many potential outcomes.

This unequal treatment will also be a gold mine for statisticians, political scientists and lawyers. The result from these different systems will be scrutinized, analyzed and subjected to regression analysis to reach an empirical determination as to whether the federal appellate court was right when it concluded the reduction of early voting days "would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot."

A central issue in Bush vs. Gore, which declared George W. Bush president of the United States, was whether the equal protection of the laws was violated by the variation among Florida counties' election and recount procedures. It took the better part of six weeks the settle the 2000 elections. If this year's election in Florida is as close as it appears it will be, unfold your favorite lounge chair. It's going to be a long time before this one is settled.

The governor deserves congratulations for the manner in which he managed the preparation for Hurricane Isaac. He has the time and legal authority to avoid the next hurricane before it slams into Florida on Nov. 6.

Bob Graham was Florida's governor from 1979-1987 and represented the state as a U.S. senator from 1987-2005. His most recent book is "Keys to the Kingdom." He wrote this column exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Florida: Prepare for another voting fiasco 08/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012 6:39pm]
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