Twelve years after Florida decided the 2000 presidential election, one of the nation’s biggest swing states is confronting a legal and political quandary over its voting standards. A federal court in Washington D.C., ruled late Thursday that new restrictions on early voting passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature cannot take effect in five counties covered by federal voting laws. The ruling — which said the changes could hurt participation by blacks — raises the prospect of having longer early-voting periods in places such Tampa than in urban areas such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Some voting groups — and Democratic politicians — called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to immediately force all counties to impose the same time period for early voting. The law passed last year kept the maximum total hours of early voting hours the same, but it reduced the days in which early voting was available. The Scott administration on Friday was still reviewing the 119-page ruling.
While the state could eventually appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, a spokesman for the governor said Florida would prefer to come up with an alternative early-voting plan that could pass muster with the court. The three-judge panel did state in its ruling that it might be willing to approve Florida’s early-voting procedures if there were guarantees that the five Florida counties covered by the ruling put in place a maximum of 96 hours of early voting. But then state officials would have to consider whether or not to order all other counties to follow the same procedure.
“There is a path to getting something done before Election Day,” said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess. “We are evaluating options and we are going to find a solution that we believe will satisfy the court.” The changes to early voting were included last in a sweeping GOP-backed election law passed last year that immediately came under fire from Democrats and voting rights groups, including one provision that eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. Black churches have engaged in “souls to the polls” voting drives where voters are taken to a polling place after Sunday services.