By John Kennedy Eds: For immediate release. c.2012 Cox Newspapers
TALLAHASSEE (Cox Newspapers) — Speakers at the Democratic National Convention are using words and images to push minority, young and working-class voters to the polls.
But voting rights groups said that a trio of court decisions last week could prove even more pivotal in getting these voters to cast ballots.
Federal court rulings in Florida, Ohio and Texas blocked key provisions of new voting laws approved by Republican-ruled legislatures and challenged by voting groups, many of them allied with the Democratic Party. The state laws overturned covered early voting in Ohio, voter IDs in Texas and registration by third-party organizations in Florida. Courts ruled the measures could disenfranchise mostly minority voters.
“What we’ve seen is a resounding rejection by federal courts of what are really repressive laws,” said Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based advocacy organization that challenged several of the new voting laws.
But opponents of the new laws also lost a round in Florida late Wednesday. A federal court endorsed a measure reducing the state’s early voting period statewide to eight days — down from 12 days. The change bars voting on the Sunday before the election, a day dubbed “souls to the polls” in many black communities, where voters cast ballots after church.
All told, the rulings mark significant, late-stage developments in a battle that began last year and is likely to stretch until Election Day. Florida was among 16 states that last year began enacting wide-ranging new voter laws affecting the 2012 elections, according to a Brennan analysis.
Florida is the nation’s biggest toss-up state in the presidential contest. But the states with new laws represent 214 electoral votes — more than three-quarters of those needed to win the White House.
Lane Wright, a spokesman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said courts and the U.S. Justice Department already have upheld virtually all the voter changes approved in 2011.
Supporters of the voter laws in Florida and other states say they are designed to prevent fraud. “This law was designed to protect the voter,” Wright said.
But courts last week disagreed in some areas.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee said he would issue a permanent injunction against a measure that restricted voter registration drives by such organizations as the Florida League of Women Voters, NAACP and student associations. Florida’s new voter law required these groups to submit voter registration forms to elections supervisors within 48 hours of being signed. Hinkle’s order reinstated the state’s earlier 10-day deadline.
Hinkle in May had already imposed a temporary injunction against the 48-hour standard.
Deirdre MacNab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, said registration efforts will be stepped-up now that there is no threat of the tighter window being enforced. “Everybody is back at work,” MacNab said.
In swing state Ohio last week, a federal court ordered elections officials to maintain early voting in the three days before the Nov. 6 election after the Republican-controlled Legislature allowed only military personnel to vote during this period.
The Obama campaign Wednesday filed a motion in federal court urging a judge to reinstate voting hours, after state officials said they would not, pending an appeal.
Another federal court in Texas last week sided with the Justice Department in ruling that requiring voters to present a photo ID “imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities.”
Still, in less-racially diverse New Hampshire, another presidential battleground state, the Justice Department on Wednesday approved requiring voters to show a government-issued photo before casting a ballot.
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist, said federal court rulings will vary nationwide, based on subtle differences between state voting laws. “They’ll all be separate pieces of a bigger puzzle,” Smith said.
Indeed, Florida’s early voting law cleared a major hurdle Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. A three-judge panel last month refused to allow fewer voting days in five Florida counties covered by federal voting laws because of past discrimination. Scott and elections officials, however, successfully pushed officials in Collier, Hendry, Hillsborough, Hardee and Monroe counties to agree to go along with fewer days to maintain uniformity statewide — a concession accepted Wednesday by the court.
Monroe County Elections Supervisor Harry Sawyer had been the lone holdout. “This change is going to hurt minorities for sure,” Sawyer said.