Florida need not provide 96 hours of early voting in all counties for the Nov. 6 election, a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit over claims that a 2011 law discriminates against blacks.
“Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they are substantially likely to prove that the 2011 changes to the Early Voting Statute were made with the intent to discriminate against minority voters,” U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote yesterday, denying a request for an injunction.
The 2011 law cut early voting to eight days from 14 and removed the final Sunday before Election Day. Opponents asked the court to force counties to offer 96 hours of early voting and make the final Sunday before the election a voting day.
The opponents failed to show that the law “operates to deny or abridge African Americans’ right to vote on account of their race,” Corrigan said in a 35-page ruling. The judge was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush.
U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, a Democrat, sued in July to have Florida’s prior early voting law reinstated. She hasn’t decided whether to appeal, Mike Collins, a Brown spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The lawsuit is among multiple court battles over voting rules, particularly in states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see possible victories.
Voter cases are also under way over laws in Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. A three-judge panel in Washington heard arguments yesterday on whether South Carolina’s new voter ID significantly burdens minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lawsuits filed over Florida voting rules include at least three challenging a law ostensibly designed to purge noncitizens from voter lists, which opponents say would disenfranchise new citizens as well. A federal judge last month blocked implementation of a new Florida law restricting voter- registration activities.
Brown, 65, who filed the early voter lawsuit along with the Democratic Party of Duval County and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the new law was unfair to black voters. The state said the new hours didn’t discriminate and provided more voter access on weekends.
“Since early voting was made the law in Florida in 2004, African American voters have disproportionately taken advantage” of it, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in court papers. “Sunday voting the last weekend before Election Day has enabled access” for these voters, they said.
Lawyers for the state countered that “Florida law affords ample opportunities to vote: eight days of in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and Election Day voting.”
Brown said she was disappointed with yesterday’s decision. “I had really hoped that the judge would allow counties to expand early voting beyond current law,” she said in an e- mailed statement.
The decision doesn’t end the lawsuit, the judge said. Both sides have the right to “further develop the record, if they so choose,” Corrigan said, asking them to file their intentions by Dec. 14.
Brown’s lawsuit was one of two actions over the new early voting rules. The state sued the U.S. last year seeking approval of the new hours under the Voting Rights Act, which requires preclearance of changes that affect five Florida counties. Under those rules, each county’s supervisor of elections had the discretion to offer six to 12 hours on each of the eight days.
A three-judge panel in August denied preclearance, finding that the new hours would adversely affect black voters.
The state revised the rules for these counties, providing for 96 hours over eight days, and the federal government granted preclearance this month. Brown and other opponents of the 2011 law asked that residents of other counties be given the same access.
Corrigan said he couldn’t enjoin a state law without a showing of intent or actual discrimination against minority voters. Corrigan said that many of Florida’s counties will be offering 96 hours of early voting, without any court order.
“It may be of some comfort to those who view this statute as, at the least, bad policy, to note that a substantial number of Florida’s counties, including the vast majority of Florida’s most populous counties, plan to implement an early voting plan with the maximum number of hours allowed,” he said.
In a separate voting law challenge, South Carolina’s requirement that voters show photo identification in order to cast a ballot faced sharp questioning yesterday from federal judges who asked whether it could be enforced in the November general election.
A special panel of three federal judges in Washington, who must sign off on the measure, appeared skeptical that the state would have enough time to get the law in place for use on Nov. 6, noting that many state-imposed deadlines for implementation expired last year.
“Are you urging us to preclear it for 2012 assuming we can get an opinion out in a week or a little over a week?” U.S. District Judge John Bates asked a lawyer for the state during more than two hours of argument.
“We are, your honor,” H. Christopher Bartolomucci, a lawyer for South Carolina, told the judges. “Obviously, we’d be satisfied with a ruling of preclearance after this election.”
South Carolina is among at least four states awaiting decisions on the legality of new voter identification requirements passed by Republican-controlled legislatures.
South Carolina is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that need either approval from the Justice Department or a special panel of federal judges in Washington to change election procedures under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Last month, photo requirements in Texas were rejected by a different three-judge panel in Washington which said it “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities” in violation of Section 5.
South Carolina’s law requires residents to present one of five approved state- or federal-issued photo IDs. It did away with a non-photo voter registration card in favor of one bearing the voter’s photo that would be issued free of charge to all residents.
South Carolina’s voter ID law was the first to be rejected by the Obama administration under the Voting Rights Act. The state responded to the Justice Department’s refusal to clear the plan by filing a lawsuit in February.
During yesterday’s argument, Bartolomucci said South Carolina’s ID law differed from Texas in that photo identification cards would be available free of charge in at least two places per county.
Voters who can’t come up with the required information may cast a provisional ballot citing a so-called reasonable impediment, he said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh asked Bartolomucci whether the law creates two classes of voters, which in turn sets up two distinct lines at the polls.
One line would include voters who have identification who would be allowed to cast a traditional ballot. The other line for those without identification would be disproportionately black, Kavanaugh said.
Those voters would be casting provisional ballots and must take additional steps, such as swearing out an affidavit, said Kavanaugh, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush.
Bates, also a Bush appointee, asked whether those voters swearing out an affidavit and casting provisional ballots would be questioned by poll managers about whether they’re intoxicated or on drugs, per South Carolina’s requirement for notaries publics.
The pool of people being asked “Are you drunk?” would be disproportionately black, he said.
The third judge on the panel is U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
The Florida case is Brown v. Detzner, 12-cv-00852, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida (Jacksonville). The other case is South Carolina v. U.S., 12-cv-00203, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at email@example.com; Tom Schoenberg in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at email@example.com