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A federal court decision issued late Thursday means Florida could have two early-voting regimens in place this year.

Among other efforts to suppress voting by groups who traditionally cast ballots for Democrats, Florida has sought to purge thousands of voters from its rolls and enacted sweeping changes in its election laws this year. These include a reduction of early voting days from 12 to eight. Critics have said the cutback would have a discriminatory impact on African American voters. Records show that black voters use early voting more than white voters do. This was particularly true in 2008.

The three-judge panel agreed with the critics.

Even though the change in early voting presumably discriminates against African
Americans across the state, the decision only affects five counties. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, any changes in election provisions come under special federal scrutiny in 16 states or parts of those states because of past discrimination against minorities.

Most of those are states or counties in the South where African Americans were kept from voting by the notorious "Jim Crow" laws. Some counties are in the West where Indians were discriminated against at the polls. In those places, any major changes in voting procedures must be pre-cleared by federal courts. Section 5 covers the Florida counties of Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe.

“In sum, Florida is left with nothing to rebut either the testimony of the defendants' witnesses or the common-sense judgment that a dramatic reduction in the form of voting that is disproportionately used by African-Americans would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot,” states the ruling issued by a three-judge panel.

The 119-page ruling did say there were ways that the state could ultimately come up with a plan to change early voting that would not adversely impact minority voting rights. [...]

The panel also said that if a plan "offered early voting for the maximum number of hours authorized by the new statute, which would be exactly the same number as under the prior law, and did so on a standard 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule, it is likely that Florida would be able to satisfy its burden of proving that the overall effect of its early voting changes would be [non-discriminatory]."

The ruling seems likely to mean Florida will have two early-voting provisions in effect before the election, the old one for the five affected counties and a new one everywhere else. In the past, authorities have waited to impose any election-law changes for the entire state until the federal courts approve the changes for those five counties. But last year it directed the state's other counties to start following the new law.

The court upheld that part of the law which requires voters to cast a provisional ballot if they wish to change their address from one county to another on election day. That provision could have a chilling effect on voting by college students, critics say. Another part of the law is being challenged elsewhere in federal court. It reduces to 48 hours the time that voter registration groups have to turn in their forms to county officials. Critics see this as another means of suppressing the vote of low-income citizens and racial minorities that traditionally register in lower percentages.

11:14 AM PT: The ACLU of Florida has issued a statement on the ruling which says, among other things:

”This is not the end of the voter suppression saga in Florida. Because the Voter Suppression Act of 2011 was implemented in the state’s other 62 counties without waiting for preclearance, we now have two sets of election laws in effect in Florida.”

“This dual election system is illegal and will lead to confusion and chaos in November. We are arguing as much in a separate ongoing legal challenge. It is our hope that that case is resolved quickly in order to prevent a new ‘Florida 2000’ mess of Governor Scott’s and the legislature’s creation.”

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Fri Aug 17, 2012 at 08:41 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKos Florida and Daily Kos.

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