Reduced and Uneven Hours for Early Voting in Florida’s Presidential Preference Primary

As I’ve written before, under Florida law the state must provide uniform standards for the proper and equitable implementation of voting laws.  Unfortunately, House Bill 1355, enacted by the Florida legislature last May, has led to fewer and uneven opportunities for Floridians to cast ballots in the state’s January presidential preference primary.

Exhibit A: Reduced and Uneven Hours for In-Person Early Voting across the state’s 67 counties.

Despite claims to the contrary by outgoing Secretary of State Kurt Browning, citizens in the Sunshine State will have considerably fewer hours to vote early in the coming weeks prior to Election Day on January 31, and voters in some counties will have half as many hours to cast an in-person ballot as voters in other counties.

When compared with the state’s January 2008 presidential preference primary, voters in the Sunshine State will have a total of 1,888 and 1/2 fewer hours to cast early, in-person votes across the state’s 67 counties.  That’s a total of nearly 79 fewer working days for the state’s roughly 11.2 million registered voters to come out early and cast ballots.

But there is also considerable inequality in opportunity for Floridians to vote early, depending on the county in which they live.

Of the five Florida counties under Section 5 Voting Rights Act awaiting US Justice Department preclearance  (Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, Monroe), early in-person voting for the January 31, 2012 presidential preference primary runs nearly two weeks, commencing on Monday, January 16.  Although they could do so, none of the five counties has opted to offer early voting on either Sunday, January 22 or Sunday, January 29 (despite the incorrect information posted of the Secretary of State’s website–which was changed after I prepared my US Senate testimony on the topic–indicating that the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections was planning to offer early in-person voting on both Sundays.)

Under House Bill 1355, the Supervisors of Elections of the state’s remaining 62 counties may offer up to 96 hours of early voting–from Saturday, January 21, to Saturday, January 28–although they may opt to limit voters to as few as 48 hours in total over the eight days they must keep their polls open.

Also, unlike in 2008, HB1355 prohibits counties not requiring US Department of Justice preclearance from offering early voting on the final Sunday (January 29) before Election Day.

As  I’ve written about here, the Florida Department of State, led by outgoing Secretary of State Kurt Browning, has continually misinformed the public about the total hours of early in-person (EIP) voting hours that are required under HB1355.  In an op-ed he penned in May 2001, Browning claimed that although the number of total days of early voting had been shortened, from 14 to 8, the total number of EIP voting hours  remained the same.  However, as Politifact documented, that claim that the total required number of EIP voting hours under HB1355 was “Mostly False.”

In fact, the total number of early in-person voting hours that county Supervisors of Elections must remain open under HB1355 has been cut in half, from 96 to 48. Under the new law, county Supervisors of Elections have the discretion to offer between six and 12 hours of early voting for each of the eight days polls are open—which amounts to a minimum of 48 hours and a maximum of 96 hours.

Polls will only be open for early voting this month for 48 hours in Citrus, Okeechobee, and Putnam counties, half of what they were in 2008. Citizens wanting to vote in Alachua, Okaloosa, and DeSoto counties will each see available hours trimmed from 96 hours four years ago to less than 55 hours this year.

Again, all 67 counties had 96 hours of early voting in 2008; this year, under HB1355, besides the five Section 5 VRA counties, only two counties are offering 96 hours of early voting–Lake and Miami-Dade.

When one tallies the total number of early voting hours across the state’s 67 counties, which I’ve done, Secretary Browning’s specious claim has indeed turned out to be false.

In the 2008 presidential preference primary, polls were open in the 67 counties a total of 6,432 hours; in the 2012 January primary, they’ll be open only 4,542 and 1/2 hours.

Although the 62 counties that are free an clear from the US Justice Department (as well as Section 5 Hillsborough County) will offer early voting on Sunday, January 22, the aggregate number of early voting hours is markedly less than in the 2008 presidential primary, which will undoubtedly make early voting less convenient for many Floridians.

But of course, that’s exactly what many Republicans in the state legislature had in mind when they passed HB1355 last year.