Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires that the United States Department of Justice, through an administrative procedure, or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, through a declaratory judgment action “pre-clear” any attempt to change “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting…” in any “covered jurisdiction.” Since several counties in Florida are covered by Section 5, the U.S. Justice Department exercised its right to block the following legislative changes in five of the state’s 67 counties.
Last year, the Florida Legislature approved a sweeping new election law that, among other things, limited early voting hours by allowing counties to reduce the window for early voting from 96 hours per week to as few as 48 hours. They achieved this reduction by prohibiting early voting within 72 hours of an election, and on the Sunday before Election Day. This ruling effectively ended “Souls to the Polls,” an African-American church-based initiative that turned out record numbers of minority voters in 2008. It was predicted that the effects of the 2011 law would “take out Obama” this fall. Election data shows that in Florida, in the 2008 presidential election, more than half of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period, twice the rate of white voters.
Invoking Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department brought the case against the state of Florida before a panel of three judges. Late Thursday, a federal court in Washington has ruled against Florida’s early-voting law, declaring that it threatens to undermine minority voting rights by seriously limiting voter turnout. Instead of totally axing the law, however, the court chose to uphold it, but only under the condition that county election supervisors opt to authorize the maximum number of early-voting hours offered under the statute, rather than the minimum. Based on this ruling, election officials in five Florida counties must agree to keep early voting open for 96 hours over eight days.
Now, if only we could get a fair ruling on Pennsylvania!