Voter Wars

As the country hurls toward another presidential election, some are saying a battle over early voting has become the 2012 version of the literacy tests and poll taxes once used to keep African Americans from away from the polls.

“That is exactly what the effect is,” said Jacksonville attorney Neil Henrichsen, “if you know that a population is using that time period to vote and without any rational justification you cut it short.”

Henrichsen is representing U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (R-Jacksonville), the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee and nine individual plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed July 27 alleging changes to early voting in 2011 violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the First, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit is one of several challenging changes to early voting laws in place since 2004. The Republican-led legislature and Gov. Rick Scott cut the number of days for early voting in 2011 as one of 80 changes made to state voting laws. The new law reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

In a hearing on Sept. 19, Jacksonville plaintiffs will ask U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan to require Duval County and the state’s other 66 counties to follow the old voting law for the Nov. 6 presidential election.

The lawsuit states that the changes target African-American voters, with the goal of reducing their voting power. In the 2008 presidential election, 54 percent of African Americans voted early; that’s twice as often as white voters, according to research by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith. Cutting the number of early voting days or the number of hours available for early voting blocks African-American voters’ access to the polls, the lawsuit says.

A tribunal of three federal judges agreed when it ruled on Aug. 16 that the changes discriminate against black voters, but their decision affected only five Florida counties. Since 1975, Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties have been under federal jurisdiction because of past discrimination. Before any changes to voting laws can be implemented, the Department of Justice or a federal court must rule on whether or not the modifications violate minority voter rights.

The judges stated plainly that the new revisions violate African Americans’ voting rights. “We find that minority voters will be disproportionately affected by the changes in early voting procedures because they disproportionately use early in-person voting.”

The ruling did offer a possible fix. If the counties offered voting 12 hours a day on the eight early-voting days, the judges said that that access would be adequate. Last week, officials in four of the five counties said they make that accommodation. Harry Sawyer, a Monroe County Republican elections supervisor, said he plans to offer 12 days of early voting, prompting Gov. Scott to suggest he might suspend Sawyer.

Even though Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland said that he will staff 16 early voting sites (one more than in the 2008 election) and that they will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for all eight days of early voting, plaintiffs in the Jacksonville lawsuit say it’s not enough. The 2011 voting law amendments eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

In large urban counties like Duval, Henrichsen said there is a tradition of a big drive in the African-American community to vote on that Sunday in what is known as “Souls to the Polls.”

“He’s trying to take the pain out of the punch,” said Pastor R.L. Gundy of Holland’s extended hours. Gundy is a plaintiff in the Jacksonville lawsuit as both an individual and as president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He’s also the senior pastor at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. Elder Lee Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church and Bishop Lorenzo Hall of Reach Out Apostolic Tabernacle Church are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“It’s critical for us to have early voting on that Sunday. That is the last push we have to get people to the polls,” said Gundy Holland said he added early voting sites and decided on the 12-hour span each day because of the number of residents he expected to vote in the presidential election, not in response to the lawsuit.

In an amended motion for an injunction in the case, Henrichsen asked Corrigan to restore early voting in Duval County and the rest of the state until the lawsuit can be heard. Henrichsen cited both the ruling of the federal tribunal and testimony that former Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer gave in a civil lawsuit in May. Greer testified under oath that in December 2009, he was at a meeting during which party officials talked about preventing blacks from voting. In an interview with Al Sharpton on MSNBC,

Greer said that Republican strategists talked about changing early-voting laws to reduce the black vote. “The GOP can’t control what happens in the voting booth,” Greer told Sharpton, “but they can certainly try to control them ever getting to the voting booth.” (Greer resigned, facing felony charges that he funneled money from the party to a private company he owned.)

In an interview with Folio Weekly, Greer said Republican consultants advocated changing voting laws to make it more difficult to register voters and to cut early-voting days because of the strong voter turnout among black and young voters in the 2008 presidential election. Statistics show that early voters lean Democratic or Independent. If they could do away with early voting completely, Greer said, the Republican leadership would. “I was in the meetings,” he said. “They hate early voting, and they don’t win on early voting.”

The current chairman of the Republican Party of Florida Lenny Curry said that Greer isn’t credible. “It’s a damn disgrace what he is saying,” Curry said. “He was chairman of the party. Why didn’t he alarm anyone then?” Greer said he and then-governor Charlie Crist rejected the changes. He said Gov. Scott embraced the changes.

Curry said the only reason that the Legislature cut out the last Sunday of early voting was because the state’s 67 supervisors of elections wanted that day to prepare for Election Day. “I have heard no one say that there was any intent to suppress the minority vote,” he said. “That’s nonsense.”

The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections said early voting had been a “tremendous success” and that the longer early-voting period under the old law “best serves the voting public.” Holland said he did recommend that early voting end a day earlier and the last Sunday of early voting be cut. He said his staff needed that time to prepare for Election Day.

If Corrigan rules in favor of the Jacksonville plaintiffs, at least the state would have one set of voting regulations. As of last week, Florida had two different early-voting plans. Voters in four of the five Florida counties under federal jurisdiction would have 96 hours of early voting, but elections supervisors in other counties could have as little as 48 hours. Richard Hasen, author of “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown,” told PBS talk show host Diane Rehm on Aug. 21 that the state can’t offer one set of voters more time to vote than another. He said that would violate the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in the Bush v. Gore case.

Hasen also said that the battles over voter identification laws and early voting taking place in key states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania got their start in the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election. Changes in voting laws can decide elections, he said. “The rules really matter, and if you can manipulate the rules at the margins, whether it has to do with who registers to vote or how votes are counted or whether you require identification, [it] could make a difference,” he told Rehm.

Susan Cooper E

[email protected]