Federal lawsuit challenges early voting changes

Rep. Brown, SCLC, Democratic Pary, Duval County voters plantiffs in suit

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Democratic Party and several Jacksonville voters on Friday filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Florida Legislature's changes to the election law limiting cutting back on early voting are discriminatory.

The changes are essentially be in place for the first time this coming week, as early voting for the Aug. 14 primary election would have started across the state on Monday had the law not changed.

Under the new law, early voting will begin on Saturday, Aug. 4, giving voters five fewer days to cast a ballot than under the old law, and giving local supervisors more discretion to decide exactly when polls will be open for early voting. It also eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day. Florida voters have been able to go to the polls ahead of Election Day since 2004.

Brown and the other plantiffs gathered on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in Jacksonville on Friday to announced the filing of the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville. She and the other plaintiffs want a judge to block the state and the Duval County elections supervisor from enforcing the changes.

While a decision isn't likely in time to add early voting days before the primary, critics of the law say it's more important to allow for additional early voting in the November general election. They argue the new reduced voting times hit Democrats harder, in part because early voting has proven very popular in African American communities.

Brown's lawsuit alleges that the changes violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

"Early voting has worked extremely well for all Floridians and especially for African American voters," Brown said. "In fact, more than any other racial or ethnic group, African Americans have come to rely on early voting."

Brown said the only explanation for restricting early voting was that "it seems that Gov. Scott simply does not want people to vote."

A spokesman for the state Division of Elections said filing the lawsuit at the last minute would cause more harm than good by confusing voters.

The spokesman, Chris Cate, also noted that the new law actually requires a day of Sunday voting, unlike the previous law, which only required that some voting be allowed on weekends.

Duval County's Supervisor of Elections, Jerry Holland, said that while there are fewer days of early voting, there really is just as much access to vote early.

"Before, in 14 days of early voting, we had 96 hours of early voting. Now, in eight days, we still have 96 because they went from eight-hour days to 12-hour days, which means now that people can vote before and after work, which may actually increase the chance for those to take advantage of early voting," Holland said.

Voters can also request an absentee ballot, which allows them to vote by mail anytime up to Election Day.

Early voting was instituted in Florida after thousands were turned away from overcrowded polls. Since 2004, Floridians have had access to the polls for eight hours a day, for 15 days right up until the last weekend before Election Day.

The lawsuit cites statistics from Dr. Daniel A. Smith, University of Florida professor of political science and research professor, that 22 percent of those voting early in the 2008 general election African-Americans, while blacks only make up 13 percent of the state's registered voters.

His research also found more African Americans voted during the early voting period than on Election Day or and absentee ballot combined. In 2008, African-Americans accounted for roughly 34 percent of votes cast on the Sunday before the election -- an early voting day that will not occur under the new rules.

These trends are amplified in Duval County where 58 percent of African Americans voted early in 2008. In last year's local elections, blacks cast roughly 34 percent of the early votes, even though they comprised less than 30 percent of the electorate, and the majority of those who voted on the Sunday before the election were African-Americans.

"There is absolutely no explanation for restricting early voting other than intentional voter suppression. In fact, it seems that Gov. Scott simply does not want people to vote," Brown said. "We should be making it easier for people to get to the polls, not harder."

The change, made by the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature in the 2011 session, was part of a wide-ranging elections bill that amended voting and election procedures in a number of ways –- many of them widely criticized by Democrats. Other changes required in the bill, for example, made it harder to vote when a voter has had to change an address, and restricted groups that do so-called third party voter registration, though that part of the law has been overturned by another court.

As of Friday, the case hadn't been assigned to a judge or set for a hearing.