Florida’s top elections official is challenging federal oversight of voting laws in jurisdicitions with a history of discrimination, including five Florida counties, as outdated and unconstitutional. Secretary of State Kurt Browning on Tuesday asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to do way with the Voting Rights Act requirement that the federal government must preclear Florida’s new voting law before it can go into effect for Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties.
The law, passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott this spring, makes broad changes to Florida’s election laws. The U.S. Justice Department has approved all except four hotly contested sections of the law — the parts that would reduce the number of early voting days, set new rules for groups conducting voter registration drives, require voters changing out-of-county addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots and make it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.
Browning, a Republican, also asked the federal court to rule on the four sections before the end of the year. After initially seeking the preclearance from justice department, he made the rare move of going to the court rather than leaving the decision to Democratic President Obama’s administration.
Asked whether Florida is seeking an expedited decision because it would be necessary for Florida to precede with its planned Jan. 31 presidential primary, Browning spokesman Chris Cate said, “It’s not just that. It’s the unnecessary delays in general that the preclearance process causes.”
Browning has declared the four contested provisions to be in effect everywhere in Florida except in the five counties, but national and state laws require that voting laws be uniform statewide.
In Tuesday’s filing, Browning contends federal approval no longer is necessary because times have changed since 1972 when racial and ethnic discrimination was confirmed in the five counties.
Under changes to the 1965 Voting Rights Act approved by Congress in 1972, the preclearance was required for jurisdictions in which at the time less than 50 percent of the voting-age citizens were registered to vote or voted in the presidential election, had a non-English-speaking population of more than five percent, and provided voting materials only in English.
Browning said in a statement that he supports most provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“However, I am frustrated that the reason we are still waiting to implement Florida law in five counties is because of an arbitrary and irrational coverage formula based on data from 40 years ago that takes no account of current conditions,” he said.