Early voting: Why Justice dropped its challenge of Florida plan

Florida's plan to bar voting the Sunday before Election Day, when some churches mount a 'souls to polls' initiative, was approved, provided 5 counties allow early voting for 96 hours over 8 days.

Florida has received a green light to implement its new early voting schedule for the November presidential election, including a Republican-backed plan that eliminates early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division agreed to end its challenge to the new early voting scheme in Florida, considered a critical battleground in the upcoming election.

The department notified state officials late Wednesday that it would approve the state’s plan for early voting, provided election supervisors in five designated counties agree to offer 96 hours of early voting over an 8-day period.

“The Attorney General does not interpose any objections to the specified changes,” the letter says in part.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Ohio, another key battleground state, ordered Ohio officials to restore early voting during the three days prior to Election Day.

The Ohio ruling came at the request of lawyers for the Obama presidential campaign. They argued that a Republican-backed law that cutoff early voting for most voters three days prior to Election Day, but allowed military personnel to continue to vote during those three days, was unfair and unconstitutional.

The judge agreed. His decision is being appealed by the state of Ohio.

At issue in the Florida case was a voting law change passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that eliminated early voting on the two days prior to the election – including the Sunday immediately before Election Day.

Minority groups opposed the change, arguing that it would undercut an effective “souls to polls” program in which Sunday worshipers were transported after church to an early voting site.

Critics suggested the new law was aimed at suppressing minority voters, and thus suppressing potential Obama votes.

Under that GOP-backed scheme, county election supervisors were given discretion to set their own early voting hours provided they kept the polls open for 48 to 96 hours over an 8-day period.

But for five of Florida’s 67 counties, the new early voting scheme was subject to pre-approval in Washington under terms of the Voting Rights Act. The VRA requires certain jurisdictions with a past history of discrimination to submit any changes in voting procedures to the Justice Department or to a three-judge federal panel in Washington before they can be used.

The five Florida counties that require such pre-approval are Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe.

Florida officials, choosing to take their case to the federal panel in Washington, argued that the early voting changes were not discriminatory. But the judges ruled last month that the early voting scheme would likely make it more difficult for minority voters.

The judges said that minority voters rely more heavily than other Florida voters on the opportunity to vote early. The changed schedule would impact them more severely if county election supervisors chose to offer only 48 hours of early voting, the court said.

The judges added, however, that the scheme would likely not be discriminatory if election supervisors permitted 96 hours of early voting over 8 days.

That would mean the polls would be open each of eight days – including a Sunday, a week prior to the election – from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

After the ruling, Florida officials told the court that the 96-hour plan would be implemented in the covered counties. But the court then suggested that the process might be faster if the state asked the Justice Department for its approval.

That approval was received on Wednesday.

In a legal notice to the three-judge panel, lawyers with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the attorney general had no objection to the proposed early voting scheme.

“Under this schedule, the five covered counties will offer the maximum 96 hours of early voting over an eight-day period, with hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” they wrote.

“That schedule will be the benchmark against which any subsequent early voting changes proposed by the covered counties must be reviewed,” the lawyers said.

Florida’s early voting plan is also the subject of a lawsuit pending in federal court and filed by Corrine Brown, a member of Congress representing Jacksonville. She is claiming that the changed voting plan is discriminatory.

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