|Cerabino: Early voting change might reduce black participation|
July 6, 2011
FRANK CERABINO, PALM BEACH POST
There's so much to marvel at in the preemptive strike against voting that is the rewrite of the Florida Elections Code passed by the state legislature this year and signed into law last month by Gov. Rick Scott.
It's a vast canvass of voter suppression measures, which make sense, I guess, considering that the architects of the law are members of a political party that wields most of the power in the state while making up significantly less than half of registered voters.
Here's just one little nugget that's easy to miss if you're not paying attention.
On line 2409 of the legislation, the part that establishes the time period of early voting, it had been law that in elections with federal races, the early voting period was to end on the "2nd day before an election."
The new law changes that to the third day before the election.
What possible difference could that one day make?
Well, the second day before an election is a Sunday. And those who have been combing over the Florida results during the last presidential election discovered that nearly a third of all the early voters on that final Sunday were black.
Large turnouts fueled by churches
"Churches had either hired buses, or used their buses to take people to the polls, or even suspending the service on the Sunday before," said James Drayton, the head of a local Democratic Club who worked as a poll watcher in Riviera Beach during the early voting period. "There was a large turnout that day."
The black vote in Florida, which went overwhelmingly to President Obama, was especially heavy during early voting. More than half of the black voters in that election voted before Election Day and many of them went on that final Sunday.
"We go to church on Sunday, and then we go together and early-vote," said Evelyn Garcia of Lake Worth, the president of the Democratic Haitian-American Caucus of Florida. "People try to help each other because transportation was a problem and knowing where to vote was a problem with some people who were new in the community."
Palm Beach County set early voting records during the last presidential election, with more than 150,000 voters showing up. It was so popular that then-Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order to extend the early voting hours.
"It's not a political decision," Crist said then. "It's a people decision."
Crist is gone now, and so are his ideas of more expansive early voting.
The new law shrinks the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. It also gives county supervisors of elections more autonomy in setting early voting hours. The old law mandated eight-hour days of early voting during weekdays, but the new law allows supervisors to open the polls for as few as six hours a day or as much as 12 hours.
Law 'friendlier to working voters'?
If the supervisors decide to open the polls to the maximum time allowed during the eight early voting days, the total number of voting hours between the old and new laws would remain the same.
"It was 96 hours under the old law, and it's 96 hours under the new law," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Secretary of State. "And it's actually friendlier to working voters, because early voting used to exist when people were primarily at work."
And there's actually more hours of early voting on weekends under the new law, too.
The new law allows supervisors to conduct early voting for as much as 12 hours a day on the Saturday before the election and the previous weekend, while the old law established four-hour voting periods on the Saturday and Sunday before the election and the previous weekend.
"So now you've got 36 weekend hours of early voting, when you used to have 16," Cate said.
But those numbers don't tell the story, said Estelle Rogers, a lawyer with Project Vote, a national organization that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities. Project Vote and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken the state to federal court in an effort to stop the implementation of the new election new.
"Not all hours are created equal," Rogers said. "Churches do a big push on that final Sunday."
Changing the elections law in Florida requires federal approval, because five Florida counties have had historical problems with complying with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that banned discriminatory voting practices.
Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studied the Florida election results during the last presidential election, said that the elimination of voting on that final Sunday, when 32 percent of all voters were black, is something that the state needs to justify.
"There are ways to get around it," McDonald said. "But it does raise voting rights issues that the state would have to address."
Read the original Palm Beach Post story here.
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