Questionable Claims Regarding Early Voting by FL Secretary State in Amended VRA Complaint

In its amended complaint to receive declaratory judgment from a federal court that all sections of HB 1355 are entitled to preclearance under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Florida Secretary of State plays fast and loose with the facts.

With respect to the shrinking of the days permissible to vote early in Florida, the complaint states (on page 19) that:

The changes to the early voting statute contained in Section 39 were adopted to expand access to early voting and provide each supervisor of elections additional flexibility regarding the scheduling of early voting. The changes to the early voting statute contained in Section 39 were not adopted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority.

Both the motive behind the statute, HB 1355, as well as the empirical evidence regarding race and early voting in Florida, are quite clear, and do not jibe with the claims made in the Secretary of State’s complaint.

First, as I’ve noted previously, it’s well known that African Americans are more likely to vote early in Florida than whites. In the 2008 general election, 2.1 million Floridians voted early.  African Americans cast 22 percent of the early votes, even though they only comprised 13 percent of the total electorate.

The Republican-led Florida legislature was well aware of these statistics.  The early turnout of African Americans in 2008 undoubtedly inspired the effort by Republican lawmakers to compress early voting, in anticipation of the 2012 general election. Indeed, the Republican effort to suppress blacks from voting early was on full display during the floor debate on House Bill 1355 (known formally as the Committee Substitute for Committee Substitute for House Bill 1355 (CS/CS/HB 1355)).

Defending the bill, Republican Senator Mike Bennett stated on the floor of the Florida Senate (as reported by PolitiFact):

Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us? This is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want ‘em to fight for it. I want ‘em to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.

Although the total number of early voting hours remains fixed at 96 hours, they’re not the same hours. Previously, voters had two weeks to cast an early vote, from a Monday to the Sunday before Election Day.  Under HB 1355, the period is eight days long, running from Saturday through Saturday, but eliminating the final Sunday before election day.

The new restriction on early voting–specifically, cutting the early voting period from 14 to 8 days and eliminating voting on the Sunday prior to the general election–unquestionably targets African Americans. Not only were African Americans more likely to cast an early ballot than whites in 2008, they were also more likely to do it on the Sunday prior to election day.

Targeting African Americans was the intent of Republican lawmakers all along, and HB 1355 clearly violates the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and the same racially motivated efforts by lawmakers to suppress the vote by minorities that it intended to correct nearly half a century ago.