A federal court ruled that Florida’s changes to early voting could disproportionately hurt minorities. (Photo by Jason Langheine.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The federal court tasked with pre-clearing Florida’s new election law ruled on Thursday that the state’s cuts to early voting days could disproportionately affect minority voters.

This is the second time a federal court has struck down a controversial provision in Florida’s new election law. Earlier this summer, a U.S. District Court in Tallahassee threw out a part of Florida’s new voting rules — which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last year — that restricts third-party voter registration groups, such as the League of Women Voters.

The law, HB 1355, required these groups to register with the state and submit completed voter registration forms within 48 hours. Before the new law, groups had 10 days to turn in the forms. The state law also levied steep penalties if groups violated these rules, prompting the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and other organizations to halt voter registrations efforts in Florida.

However, this was just one of the controversial provisions in the law. The others included cutting early voting from 12 days to eight days, as well as a restriction on address changes that some alleged would make it harder for college students to vote.

While the address change provision was not struck down by the court, the reduction in days for early voting did concern the three-judge federal panel. According to the Associated Press:

But the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled late Thursday that because of the law’s potential impact on minority voters, it would not allow Florida to put the changes in place in five Florida counties covered by federal voting laws.

The court said that evidence presented in the case clearly showed that black voters utilized early voting much more than white voters do, especially in the 2008 election, when President Barack Obama won Florida.

“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.

Still the ruling raises the prospect that Florida will have two different types of early voting for this year’s crucial presidential election.

In Florida, changes to voting laws in five counties must be pre-cleared by a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Usually, the state waits until a court clears new voting rules before implementing them. This time, however, Florida officials did not wait for clearance and enacted one of the most controversial new voting laws in the nation in 62 of the state’s 67 counties.

Experts and advocates have long warned the bill was designed to keep likely Democratic voters from the polls on Election Day, by singling out the ways in which young people and minorities vote and then restricting those ways. So far, judges have sided with these experts and advocates.

Because the court did not clear the early voting changes in the five counties under its review, the state might break its own law come Election Day. Florida could hold elections with two sets of laws — one for 62 counties, another for the five counties under federal review — even though Florida law requires uniform voting rules statewide.