JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) – Florida is trying to make it difficult for black citizens to vote, by shortening the early voting period and prohibiting voting on the Sunday before Election Day, according to a federal lawsuit from a congresswoman, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Democratic Party.
The Republican-controlled Legislature violated the Florida Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by reducing the early voting period from 15 to 10 days and eliminating voting on the Sunday before Election Day, the plaintiffs say.
The plaintiffs say the Legislature overrode concerns of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, and stated clearly that they are trying to make voting difficult.
The president pro tem of the state Senate clearly said that voting “should not be easy,” lead plaintiff Congresswoman Corrin Brown says in the complaint.
“During the final debate, the express purpose of the Act was to make it difficult for citizens to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint states. Senator Michael Bennett, President Pro Tempore of the Florida Senate and one of the most vocal supporters of the Act, stated: ‘I want to people in the State of Florida to vote as badly as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.'”
Congresswoman Brown, the SCLC, the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee and 11 people sued Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, seeking declaratory judgment and an injunction.
Jacksonville, pop. 813,000, the seat of Duval County, has one of the highest percentages of African-Americans in Florida.
During the 2000 presidential election, 27,000 votes from Jacksonville, mostly from black neighborhoods, were not counted, according to the complaint.
To alleviate some of the voting problems, a 15-day early voting period was enacted in 2004, but in 2011 Republicans amended the law reduce early voting to 7 days and eliminate Sunday voting, ending the early voting period 3 days before the general election rather than 2 days before it.
“The 2011 Amendments to the Florida Elections Code were originally introduced as legislation H.B. 1355 on March 7, 2011,” the complaint states. “That legislation did not provide for any changes to early voting. On April 30, 2011, an amendment was filed by State Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla that proposed a start to early voting the 7th day before an election, as opposed to the existing 15th day before an election. Early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, however, was not addressed in the amendment.
“Thereafter, State Senator Diaz de la Portilla offered another amendment that proposed a start to early voting on the 10th day before an election and an end to early voting the 3rd day before the election. These amendments were contained in the final legislation that passed the legislature on May 5, 2011.”
The plaintiffs add: “FSASE [The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections] also advised the Florida Senate on April 18, 2011, the following concerns regarding the proposed amendments shortening early voting days: ‘Section 35. This requires that early voting begin seven days before the election, rather than 15. While this may be workable with respect to primary elections, not having the 15-day timeframe for the General Election could result in crowding and confusion at early voting sites and on Election Day at the precincts. Maintaining 15 days for the General Election is imperative to a smooth General Election in the state. Flexibility in choosing early voting locations is critical’.
“The Act, passed by the Republican-controlled Florida House and Senate, ultimately severely curtailed early voting, in pertinent part, as follows: (1) early voting is to begin on the 10th not the 15th day before an election that contains state or federal races; (2) early voting in such elections shall end on the 3rd not 2nd day before the election (thus eliminating Sunday voting); (3) the supervisor of elections shall provide early voting for no less than 6 hours and no more than 12 hours per day at each site during the applicable period; and (4) it is in the discretion of the supervisor of elections to provide early voting for elections that are not held in conjunction with a federal or state election and to determine the hours of operation of early voting sites in those elections.
“During the final debate, the express purpose of the enactment of the Act was to make it difficult for citizens to exercise their right to vote. Senator Michael Bennett, President Pro Tempore of the Florida Senate and one of the most vocal supporters of the Act, stated, ‘I want the people in the State of Florida to want to vote as badly as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for the opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.'”
The plaintiffs say the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected a proposal to restore the early voting period to 15 days.
“According to data from the State of Florida and Supervisors of Elections, African-American voters for the 2008 and 2010 elections have disproportionately relied on early voting in casting their ballots,” the complaint states. “African-American voters ended up casting 22 percent of the total early in-person votes in the 2008 General Election even though they comprised approximately 13 percent of the state’s total registered electorate. In addition, more African-American voters voted early in 2008 (all 14 days) than voted (combined) on Election Day or with an absentee ballot in the 2008 general election. Accordingly, there is a strong reliance upon early voting by African-Americans and other minority voters for full and meaningful participation in the political process.
“Many African American early voters work long hours during the week, are more available on the weekend, and are most energized just before Election Day. Under the Act, the State of Florida has precluded these counties from permitting early voting on the day when African American early voting is heaviest.”
Plaintiffs include Pastor Reginald Gundy and Bishop Lorenzo Hall.
They seek an injunction ordering the state to restore the early voting period to begin on the 15th day before Election Day, and to end on the 2nd day before Election Day.
They are represented by Neil Henrichsen, with Henrichsen Siegel.