Elections supervisors in five Florida counties are correct to refuse to implement the state's new deeply flawed election law until the Justice Department determines whether the changes affect minority voting standards. Secretary of State Kurt Browning was improperly pushing Florida's 67 elections supervisors to adapt to the new rules immediately, so Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards felt compelled to send a letter to Browning informing him of this constraint. The state should wait until these issues are resolved, or Florida may face an untenable bifurcated voting system, with five counties operating under one set of rules and the rest of the state another.
Five Florida counties — Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe — are subject to Justice Department review when voting law or procedures are altered. Under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the department must issue approve new voting rules before they go into effect, which prevents localities and states where there had been voting rights issues in the past from attempting new shenanigans.
After the department receives Florida's request for preclearance, it will determine within a couple of months whether the new law disadvantages minority voters. Any fair reading of the statute would find that the law discriminates in a number of ways.
For instance, reducing early voting from two weeks to eight days reduces voting opportunities for people with inflexible jobs who tend to have difficulty getting to the polls during the work week. These are generally lower income residents who are also disproportionately minority. Browning says the reduced early voting days are offset by expanded hours of up to 12 hours per day. But the longer hours are only optional.
Another troublesome feature affects renters and people who move often, again impacting lower-income Floridians. Voters who moved out of the county of their registration will be given a provisional ballot, causing them inconvenience and hassle. Browning says he will direct that all provisional ballots filled out by people with a change of address are counted, but that's not good enough. These voters are singled out as a way to dissuade them from showing up at the polls.
Voter registration drives are made significantly harder with burdensome filings and steep fines for groups such as the League of Women Voters and other civic participation groups. The league has said it will end its voter registration efforts under these new conditions.
When Waller County, Texas, enacted new rules to burden third-party voter registration efforts before the 2008 election in an attempt to keep students from a historically black college from registering to vote, the Justice Department filed suit for Voting Rights Act violations. The department is willing to police efforts to reduce voter drives that boost minority voting rates, and it should do so in Florida.
In an attempt to tilt the balance of the next election toward Republicans, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have designed ways to suppress voting by racial and ethnic minority voters. The Justice Department should protect voting rights by seeing through their tricks and calling it what it is: illegal.