(CN) - Florida's plan to cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight does not discriminate against African-American voters, a federal judge ruled.
A group of African-American leaders and voters, including U.S. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), challenged the 2011 amendments to Florida's early voting law, claiming they denied minority voters equal access to the polls. The group asked a federal court to restore the previous early voting rules, arguing that the new law violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
Enacted in 2004 and amended in 2006, Florida's early voting law provided for up to 14 days of early voting, but no fewer than 12, up through the Sunday before Election Day. Though early voting became increasingly popular, especially among African-American voters, Florida reduced the number of early voting days in 2011.
Under the new law, counties can offer between six and 12 hours of early voting each day, for a maximum of eight days. The amendments also mandate two Saturdays and one Sunday of early voting, but eliminate early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
The state last year asked the District of Columbia to approve changes to its voting law, including the early voting amendments. But a three-judge panel ruled in August that the changes would negatively affect minority voters if counties choose to offer the minimum number of early voting hours under the new law, which would constitute only half the hours required under the previous law.
Florida then assured the court that five of its counties, which are covered under the Voting Rights Act because of their history of discrimination, would offer the maximum of 96 hours of early voting under the new law.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan ruled last week that Florida need not provide 96 hours of early voting in all its counties for the upcoming election.
"When it comes to protecting the fundamental right to vote, African Americans have special reason to be vigilant," Corrigan wrote.
But the judge concluded that "the new law will not impermissibly burden the ability of African Americans to vote," and that the plaintiffs are unlikely to prove the changes violate the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution.
While the amendments would have a disproportionate effect on minority voters because those groups use early voting disproportionately, the plaintiffs have failed to prove Florida's discriminatory intent in adopting the amendments, according to the 35-page ruling.
"While agreeing that the legislative record regarding the reasons for the early voting changes is somewhat meager, this is not enough to support a finding of discriminatory intent," Corrigan wrote.
There is no evidence that the changes which, according to the state, were intended to increase flexibility and make voting more efficient, will deny minorities equal access to the polls.
Corrigan noted that 32 of Florida's 67 counties will offer the maximum number of early voting hours under the new law, and no counties are planning to stick to the required minimum of eight early voting days.
And though the new law bars early voting on the final Sunday before Election Day, counties are allowed to increase the overall number of weekend voting hours on both weekends preceding the election, according to the ruling.
The plaintiffs also failed to prove a connection between early voting laws and the 2000 election, where, they alleged, a disproportionate percentage of African-American voters were disenfranchised, the ruling adds.
Corrigan said the decision does not necessarily end the lawsuit and directed the parties to notify the court of their next moves in the litigation. The lawsuit is one of many legal disputes over voting laws, particularly in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which could decide the outcome of this year's presidential election.
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