State ask for approval of early voting changes
By Jim Saunders and Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012…….Attorneys for the state have asked a federal court to approve a change in early-voting hours in Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Hillsborough counties — but appeared to stop short of asking for that same approval in Monroe County, where a controversy has flared about the issue.
The state filed documents in federal court in the District of Columbia on Wednesday seeking approval to use eight, 12-hour days of early voting in the four counties during the November elections.
State lawmakers last year approved a measure that sought to reduce the number of early voting days from a maximum of 14 to eight. But the federal court blocked the changes in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties, which need approval from the court or the U.S. Justice Department to make voting changes because of a history of language and racial discrimination — a process known as “preclearance.”
In the documents filed Wednesday, the state pointed to part of the court’s ruling that indicated the number of days could be reduced to eight if the state submitted a plan to allow early voting for 12 hours each day.
“In light of this court’s opinion, Florida moves to amend its complaint to seek preclearance for the early voting changes, as implemented in Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Hillsborough counties” to provide 96 hours of voting on a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule, the state’s attorneys wrote.
Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Hillsborough counties have not objected to such a change. But Harry Sawyer, supervisor of elections in Monroe County, has refused, at least in part because he believes the number of days of early voting is more important than longer hours.
In the documents, the state appears to indicate that it will continue to seek preclearance for Monroe County under the terms of the legislation that passed last year. State officials expect in November to use the 2011 law in the other 62 counties, as they did in this month’s primary.
Democrats earlier Wednesday accused Gov. Rick Scott of bullying the Monroe County supervisor of elections to try to get him to go along with the change. Sawyer’s refusal to go along prompted Scott to suggest on Tuesday that he might suspend the supervisor.
Former Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber blasted that statement in a conference call Wednesday, saying Sawyer was simply following the D.C. court’s decision. Democrats contend that reducing the number of early-voting days particularly will hurt minority voters.
“At this point, the only person doing precisely what he’s supposed to do is the Monroe County supervisor of elections,” Gelber said.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, also called on Scott to set aside the early-voting changes across Florida in response to the court ruling.
Joyner has filed a legal challenge with the Division of Administrative Hearings seeking to block an order by Detzner that the voting law changes take effect in the other 62 counties even before they were precleared. The judge in that case has delayed a decision, originally scheduled for Friday, in light of the federal ruling.
“[Scott] should accept that the new law is fatally flawed, and that all 67 counties in this state need to vote uniformly under the previous law that’s in effect in the five covered counties,” Joyner said.
Scott’s office says Sawyer isn’t doing his job by refusing to go along with the eight-day, 12-hour voting time frame in an effort to get it precleared. Late Tuesday, the governor’s office released identically worded emails from the supervisors of elections in the other four preclearance counties.
“If the early voting changes in Chapter 2011-40 receive preclearance, Collier County would offer early voting for 12 hours per day on each day of the early voting period, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, for the November 2012 General Election,” read the one from Collier.
In an email with the supervisors’ statements attached, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess added that, “it’s our view that Monroe County has a duty to present a plan that would meet pre-clearance requirements.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced that some new rules regarding third-party voter registration groups had gained preclearance. But those rules don’t include one of the more controversial provisions, which required those groups to turn in all completed registration forms within 48 hours; that was blocked by a federal court in Tallahassee in May.
“By the time the court has finished ruling on last year’s elections law, I am confident all 80 provisions of the law will be approved and Florida will be even better prepared to conduct elections in a manner that serves its voters’ interests and needs,” Detzner said in a statement announcing the approval of the third-party rules.
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