JACKSONVILLE — A federal judge on Wednesday questioned the decision by the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature to limit the number of early voting days heading into this year’s crucial presidential election.
Judge Timothy Corrigan, an appointee of President George W. Bush, held a three-hour hearing in a Jacksonville courtroom on whether he should block the 2011 law that cut the number of days from 14 to eight. The court battle comes just weeks before voting is scheduled to start in the key swing state and is one among a series of legal battles dealing with Florida voting procedures.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., as well as the Duval County Democratic Party and a civil rights group, filed a lawsuit this summer that challenges the law. Their lawsuit contends that the move was discriminatory because blacks voted early in higher percentages, especially during the 2008 election in which President Barack Obama carried Florida.
Corrigan did not rule Wednesday but said he would soon. He peppered both sides with questions on whether he should grant the request from Brown and the others who were challenging the law.
He made it clear that he didn’t understand the rationale for why state lawmakers decided to change the number of days. He said there appeared to be little evidence in the record on what prompted legislators to act.
“This was a resolution in search of no problem,” Corrigan told lawyers for the state of Florida at one point.
George Meros, a Tallahassee attorney representing the state, contended that legislators may have had private conversations with local election supervisors before deciding to pass the law. He said one reason for the law was to give counties flexibility. Counties are allowed to spread the hours the polls are open over eight calendar days in order to give early voters a total of between 48 and 96 hours of access to voting booths.
Meros also argued that the lawyers representing Brown had not produced enough evidence to show that the decision to cut back on early voting would discriminate against minorities. He said the changes were “race neutral” and even noted that the black elections supervisor in a tiny north Florida county with a majority of black voters was not using the full 96 hours.
Corrigan pointed out that there was nothing in federal law now that even required the state to offer early voting. He asked why it would not have been “valid” if Florida had initially passed a law authorizing eight days of early voting instead of 14.
Neil Henrichsen, an attorney representing Brown, said lawmakers had an obligation to maintain early voting once it was in place.
“Once that right is given, that is a protected right,” Henrichsen said.
After the hearing Brown told reporters that all voters would get a better chance to vote if there were more days available for early voting. But she repeated past assertions that the new law — which eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day — was aimed at black voters. Many black churches had organized “souls to the polls” voting drives for that day.
“Why is it that the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott decided they wanted to suppress the African American vote?” she asked.
One part of the hearing also dealt with whether Brown and others waited too late to challenge the law. Corrigan himself said he was concerned about creating more confusion if he blocked the law. An attorney representing three GOP county executive committees argued that even if the judge considered the law discriminatory he could not block it this close to Election Day.
Brown afterwards said she waited because a federal court in Washington, D.C., had spent nearly a year reviewing the law. That’s because federal authorities must review voting changes in five Florida counties due to a history of discrimination.
The administration of President Barack Obama earlier this month finally signed off on a proposal that would require polls to be open a total of 96 hours for early voting in those counties, which include Hillsborough County in the Tampa Bay area.
Corrigan asked whether the state could craft an agreement that calls for Florida’s remaining 62 counties to also offer 96 hours of early voting. But Meros told him that Secretary of State Ken Detzner lacks the authority to mandate that counties do that.
The state has already filed information with the court that shows most of the state’s bigger counties do plan to hit the maximum by holding 12 hours a day of early voting for eight days. Those counties have large concentrations of Democratic voters.
These include the three counties in South Florida, as well as Duval County in northeast Florida and most of the counties along the Interstate 4 corridor in Central Florida. Two counties that have large concentrations of student have also told the state they will hold 96 hours of early voting.
But 32 counties will not hold the full amount of hours available under the current law.
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