The courts seem to be the only branch of government protecting the right to vote. Voter registration and voting should be easy and convenient with no unnecessary barriers, but Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures in Florida and elsewhere don't see it that way. They have systematically been making voting harder for the young, African-Americans and Hispanics — groups that tend to lean Democratic. Fortunately, the federal courts have corrected some of the worst abuses by the executive and legislative branches.
A federal judge indicated last week that he will permanently block the strict limits on voter registration groups imposed in Florida last year, restoring the old rules giving groups 10 days instead of the 48 hours to submit completed voter applications. That's a big step toward making voter registration accessible again. Even so, significant damage already has been done to Democratic registrations, according to the Florida Times-Union. From July 2011 to August of this year, only 11,365 additional Democrats registered statewide, while there were 128,039 added Republicans. Compare that to the years before the elections of 2004 and 2008, in which registrations by Democrats increased an average of 209,425 voters versus 103,555 for Republicans. The stark change is no coincidence.
Last month, early-voting changes in the same Florida law were unanimously rejected by a three-judge federal panel in Washington. The court found that the reduction of Florida's early voting from as many as 14 days to eight adversely impacted minority voters and could not apply to the five Florida counties — Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe — subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. In 2008, black voters were disproportionately likely to utilize early voting. More than half of all black voters cast ballots that way.
The court gave Florida a chance to salvage the law if all five counties agreed to keep the polls open 12 hours a day over those eight days to equal 96 hours of early voting, the minimum number of hours required under the old law. Gov. Rick Scott wanted all five county supervisors of election to agree. Harry Sawyer Jr., the courageous Republican supervisor of elections in Monroe County, initially resisted but gave in, and on Wednesday so did the U.S. Justice Department. The 14 days would have been better, but Scott should now ensure that all 67 Florida counties follow the same early-voting schedule.
Florida is not the only Republican-controlled state where new voting restrictions have been struck down. Last week, a different three-judge federal panel in Washington rejected a stringent Texas voter ID law. The judges found that for people without a driver's license it would be costly and difficult to obtain the state ID necessary to vote, adversely impacting minority voters. In Ohio, a federal judge restored early-voting days that had been eliminated.
Meanwhile, Scott remains determined to purge the voter rolls using a federal database that is a helpful but imperfect tool. The courts will have to remain vigilant, because no other branch of government is standing up for the rights of voters.