The campaign by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature to make it more difficult to register to vote and cast ballots is causing chaos less than 80 days before the general election. On the positive side, two federal court rulings will make it easier for third-party groups to register voters statewide and for voters to go to the polls early in five counties, including Hillsborough. But the Republican governor continues to pursue an imperfect, unnecessary purge of the voter rolls that will suppress the vote of minorities and low-income Floridians who tend to vote for Democrats.
First, the good news. A three-judge panel in Washington last week ruled that early voting provisions of a 2011 law would negatively impact voting by African-Americans and refused to approve it. The provision cut early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated voting on the Sunday before the election. The record clearly shows that African-Americans disproportionately rely on early voting. The decision only affects five counties in Florida — Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe — because they are the only ones subject to preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
But the court's ruling is a clear indictment of the early voting changes, saying that the "dramatic reduction" in early voting "would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot." Protecting all of Florida's African-American voters from this discriminatory voting scheme would require that all 67 counties — not just five —return to the more generous days and hours of the prior law.
The court said Florida could compensate for the shorter number of days by increasing mandatory early voting hours from 48 hours to 96 hours, or 12 hours every early voting day. This may be acceptable, but only if the change were statewide. Otherwise, county supervisors of election in Hillsborough and the four other preclearance counties should not agree to the state's pressure tactics to unanimously embrace the court's suggestion. Floridians should not be voting under two different sets of rules — particularly when one set is racially discriminatory.
This ruling follows another quietly successful challenge to the 2011 law. In May, a federal court barred enforcement of a requirement that voter registration groups submit registration forms to elections offices within 48 hours of completion rather than 10 days, as had been the case under the prior law. Large fines accrued for noncompliance. The law was a transparent effort to dissuade third-party voter registration drives. Florida is not appealing the ruling.
Now, the bad news. Scott is continuing his efforts to interfere with the voter rolls by attempting to purge noncitizens, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud and a fast approaching election. The state and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed last week on how state elections officials can use the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement Programs, or SAVE database, to help identify noncitizens. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said his department will first submit the 2,600 names that had been prematurely sent to the state's supervisors of election — a faulty list that turned out to include American citizens. The SAVE database is no panacea, and a SAVE fact sheet says it may not accurately determine citizenship. County elections supervisors, who refused to use the state's flawed initial list, should remain vigilant and skeptical of any revised state list of allegedly ineligible voters — particularly as the election nears.
Instead of making it easier to register to vote and cast ballots, Scott and his Republican allies have done everything possible to make it harder. They should be held accountable for interfering with the fundamental right to vote.