Editorial: Fixing Florida's voting mess

Hundred of voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Miami.
Hundred of voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Miami.
Published July 2, 2013

Florida's dysfunction during the 2012 general election did not impact all voters the same way. A new study done for a bipartisan election reform commission finds that the hourslong wait times at the polls, while outrageous for everyone, were worse for Hispanic and African-American voters. But the best tool to prevent racial and ethnic bias in elections — federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — was effectively eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. Without preclearance, the commission should suggest an alternative means for the federal government to assert greater control over the nation's elections to ensure uniform fairness.

Floridians are well familiar with the stories of voters in Miami-Dade County waiting seven hours or more to vote in November. But the study found a pernicious racial component to the inconvenience that afflicted counties around the state. Precincts with a greater proportion of Hispanic voters closed later on Election Day than precincts with predominantly white voters, meaning that voters were waiting in line longer.

And early voting polling stations with the greatest concentrations of Hispanic and African-American voters experienced inordinately long wait times at the start and close of each day, particularly on the final Saturday of early voting.

The Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group, submitted these findings to the 10-member Presidential Commission on Election Administration on Friday at its first meeting — held in Miami, ground zero for the state's voting mess. The commission was established by President Barack Obama as part of his election night promise to fix voting problems encountered across the United States and particularly in Florida.

The commission's work is essential after the major hit to voting rights by the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 opinion that neutered the most effective tool to prevent racial and ethnic bias in elections. In Shelby County vs. Holder, the court released nine states and dozens of counties with a history of voter discrimination (including five in Florida: Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry, Hardee and Monroe) from rules requiring federal preapproval of all elections changes.

Under preclearance, a panel of federal judges had tried to mitigate Florida's 2011 changes to early voting that reduced the number of days from as many as 14 to eight. Because early voting was disproportionately relied upon by minority voters, the judges required that the state's preclearance counties offer the maximum 96 hours of early voting.

After the election, state legislators rewrote the law to restore early voting to up to 14 days statewide at the discretion of county elections supervisors. That is not as good as the law before 2011, but it's better than what was in place in 2012. The Florida study is a powerful demonstration of what can happen when lawmakers seek to exploit a perceived partisan advantage by diluting minority voting strength. Federal oversight is still needed to prevent another election disaster like the last one, and Congress should rewrite the rules as the Supreme Court suggested to restore teeth to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.