By Mike Lillis
Florida Democrats are cheering a federal court's decision to roll back a state law slashing early voting hours.
The year-old statute, championed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, empowers counties to reduce in-person early voting from eight days before the election to four, while barring early voting on the Sunday before election day.
But a panel of federal judges this week invoked the 1965 Voting Rights Act to rule that the statute would discriminate against African American voters who are known to use early voting at a much higher rate than other populations.
The ruling is vindication for Democrats who have accused a long list of state GOP lawmakers of enacting new voting restrictions in order to suppress black and other minority voters, who tend to favor Democrats. And Florida Democrats were quick to welcome the verdict.
“There is no question that African Americans disproportionately rely on early in-person voting and changing the rules is likely to result in fewer of them voting," Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), one of the plaintiffs in the suit challenging the law, said in a statement. "The court rightly saw through the state’s failure to provide any explanation for restricting the opportunity to vote."
Of Florida's 67 counties, only five – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – are covered by the section of the Voting Rights Act cited by the court. The relatively small number of voters affected statewide is causing some Democrats to worry about the scope of the ruling.
“While I am encouraged by the court’s ruling to block Republicans’ attempts at curtailing early voting in five counties," Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said in a statement, "I am disheartened that the rest of Florida’s voters have to live under the new law.
"We now have two separate sets of rules for voters," she added. "It’s unconscionable and it will be confusing. Inevitably, it will lead to college students, minorities, seniors and others being disenfranchised."
Still, Brown and other critics of the state law, who are already pushing to apply the ruling statewide, are optimistic about their chances.
"I am very confident this ruling will eventually be applied to the entire state,” Brown said.
The 2011 Florida law reduced the number of days that counties could offer early voting prior to elections, from 12 to eight, and also gave local election supervisors broader discretion to choose how many hours – between six and 12 – the polls would be open on those days. As a result, some counties might offer 96 hours of early voting – the same number offered prior to the 2011 law – but others might offer as few as 48.
In its ruling, the panel explains why the change is significant.
"More than half (54%) of African-American voters in Florida cast ballots [in 2008] using early in-person voting – twice the rate of white voters," the ruling reads.
The "dramatic reduction" in early-voting opportunities, the ruling continues, "would be analogous to … closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.
"Although such action would not bar African-Americans from voting, it would impose a sufficiently material burden to cause some reasonable minority voters not to vote."
In its defense, the state of Florida had argued that the 2008 election was an "outlier" – a notion the court soundly rejected.
"[R]ather than being an 'outlier,'" the ruling states, "the evidence suggests that the 2008 general election is best seen as a 'game-changer' that simply magnified already nascent trends in African-American preferences for early in-person voting."
The judges also hammered the Florida law for eliminating the option to vote on the Sunday before election day. The court noted that "many African-American churches organize 'souls to the polls' drives to transport their congregants to early voting sites on that Sunday."
"[T]hat Sunday is therefore disproportionately used by African-American voters in jurisdictions that have early voting on that day," the panel said.