Federal judge hears early voting challenge

Rep. Corrine Brown, others ask for injuction to block cutback of early voting

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A federal judge in Jacksonville heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit over Florida cutting early voting from 14 to eight days, then promises to rule quickly.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., as well as a civil rights group and the Duval County Democratic Party, are asking a judge to block a law that reduces early voting days.

Brown and the others contend the law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that cut the number of days from 14 to eight discriminates against blacks because they vote early in large percentages.

"I don't know exactly what the ruling is going to be, but I'm really, very disappointed that the Republican Party is continuing to try to suppress the African-American vote," Brown said.

Lawyers for Secretary of State Ken Detzner contend that no one has proven that the change will harm minorities, especially since the law still provides for the same total number of hours available for early voting. They have also criticized filing the lawsuit on the eve of the election when the law was passed more than a year ago.

The new law not only cut back on the number of days available for early voting, but it also eliminated early voting on the Sunday prior to Election Day, which is when many black churches would organize "souls to the polls" events to take parishioners to early voting locations.

"There was no reason for the Legislature to go back and do what they did, taking the dates, cutting down," she said. "I mean, it was a whole list of things they've done to disenfranchise and suppress the African-American vote."

Lawyers representing the state say the changes affect everyone equally, and thus can't be discriminatory. But Brown's attorney Neil Henrichsen says statistics show the new voting schedule disproportionately affects minorities, who are more inclined to take advantage of early voting.

"We feel that we got a really fair hearing from the court, and the court was very thorough in it's preparation, and we appreciate that," Henrichsen said.

The federal judge handling the case, Judge Timothy Corrigan, ordered the state to provide information about early voting. He did not make a decision Wednesday, but that is expected sometime soon.

Under the new law, it's up to each county to decide how many hours will be spent on early voting, between 48 and 96. The information gathered by state election officials show that 32 counties -- including Brevard on Florida's east coast and Osceola in Central Florida -- will not hold the full amount of hours available under the new law. Brevard County only plans to offer early voting for 68 hours, while Osceola County will have 91 hours of voting.

But the state's bigger counties -- including Duval County -- do plan to hold 12 hours a day of early voting for all eight days.

The administration of President Barack Obama has already signed off on a proposal that calls for 96 hours of early voting in five Florida counties covered by the federal Voting Rights Act including Hillsborough County in the Tampa Bay area.

A federal court in Washington refused initially to approve the state's move to cut back on early voting days in those counties, saying it could discourage minority voting, especially among black voters. The court said that evidence presented in the case clearly showed that black voters utilized early voting much more than white voters, especially in the 2008 election, when Obama carried Florida.

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