In the state’s largest counties, with the highest number of black voters, many voters went to the early voting sites on the Sunday before Election Day.
Now, under a new law — passed by a Republican Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott last month — that early voting period has been cut from 14 days to eight days. And the Sunday voting, before Election Day, has been eliminated.
Democrats and other critics say the changes — which are just part of a sweeping elections law that also revamps voter registration, petition drives and other voting issues — are designed to raise barriers to potential Democratic votes in the nation’s largest battleground state heading into the 2012 presidential election. They contend the law will have a disproportionate impact on black voters.
An analysis of state election records by the Florida Democratic Party showed that in 2008, 1.1 million black voters participated in the general election, in which they had the opportunity to elect the country’s first African-American president.
Nearly 54 percent of those voters cast ballots before Election Day at early-voting sites. The figure does not include the 13.6 percent who cast absentee ballots.
In contrast, only 27 percent of the white voters used the early-voting sites, with another 25 percent using absentee ballots. Some 32.5 percent of Hispanic voters participated in early voting.
Independent elections experts say Florida’s decision to shorten its early-voting period may be particularly vulnerable to a legal challenge because of the data showing changes to that system could discriminate against black voters.
Last week, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning asked the U.S. Department of Justice to endorse the law since the state needs federal approval, known as preclearance, for changing its elections laws in five counties that have had a history of voting problems.
The five counties that require preclearance are Hillsborough, Hendry, Collier, Hardee and Monroe.
The preclearance is part of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 federal law that banned discriminatory voting practices, including those that were historically aimed at black voters in the South.
Department of State officials said they were confident that the new law would win approval from the federal government. The confidence stems in part from the fact that, although the law reduces the number of early-voting days, it keeps the total potential hours the same by allowing counties the option of keeping the sites open for 12 hours a day.
“The reality is that the changes to early voting make Florida elections more accessible,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Browning. “And, if the enthusiasm for the candidates remains the same as it was in 2008, I actually expect see an increase in early voting turnout in 2012.”
In another analysis of the 2008 election in Florida, Michael McDonald, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, demonstrated that African-American voters accounted for roughly 22 percent of the daily turnout at the early voting sites in 2008, although they only accounted for 13.1 percent of the registered voters.
The early voting daily percentages for black voters ranged from a low of 19.6 percent to a high of 36 percent.
Based on that data, McDonald said Florida could face a significant legal challenge in demonstrating to the federal government that shortening the number of early-voting days will not negatively impact black voters.
“When you look at these numbers, there seems to be … evidence right away that suggests there would be disparate effects,” McDonald said.
He said the state can argue those effects can be eliminated by using measures such as providing additional voting sites, guaranteeing longer hours and providing more notification to voters.
But he added: “It looks to me like it’s going to be difficult to make this argument.”
McDonald said there are legitimate public policy reasons for shortening the early voting period, including reducing the cost to local election officials.
In an ideal setting, McDonald said, he would like to see elections officials have the ability to adjust the early voting periods based on the anticipation of a high- or low-turnout election.
Cate said the new Florida early-voting system will be “friendlier for working voters” because election officials will have the option of keeping their voting sites open up to 12 hours a day, rather than the previous eight hours, providing more access to Floridians before and after work.
The new law, although it eliminates one day of weekend voting before the election, provides up to 36 hours of weekend voting, compared to 16 hours under the old law, Cate said.
And although the law does not mandate the 12-hour days — it makes it a local option — Cate said the state Division of Elections expects to see the longer hours used in communities where there is a higher demand.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer money to keep a polling place open 12 hours a day if voters aren’t showing up for 12 hours,” Cate said. “Election supervisors know their county’s needs and will make sure early voting is accessible as possible to their voters. It’s safe to say that if a voter is in a high-turnout area, their early voting polling locations will be open 12 hours a day.”
But another elections expert said despite keeping the potential for the same 96 hours of early voting, the new law changes the system and could discriminate against black voters.
“It’s not just the hours,” said Justin Levitt, an associate law professor at the Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles.
Levitt said Florida has significantly changed the system by eliminating the voting on the Sunday before the election Studying data from the 2008 and 2010 elections, Levitt said he initially saw a steep decline in voting on the final Sunday.
But he said a deeper analysis showed that wasn’t true in the largest counties with the largest African-American voting blocs.
“The larger, more urban counties — Miami-Dade, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward (in 2008) — chose to make voting available on Sunday, and voters responded,” Levitt wrote in a recent blog post.
That analysis was backed up by McDonald’s research, which showed on the final Sunday before the 2008 presidential election, black voters accounted for 32 percent of the daily early-voting turnout in Florida.
State Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, said eliminating that final Sunday would impact African-American voters.
In the 2008 election, he said he and Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, worked with a group of Broward County ministers in getting voters to the polls.
“On that Sunday before the election, they told their congregation members we’re going to leave church when church is over and we’re going to the polls,” Thurston said. “They didn’t tell you who to vote for, but on that day that was part of what was done at the end of the service.”
Thurston, who like many Democrats sees the new election law as part of a national effort by Republicans to influence next year’s presidential race, said he is concerned that the law could provide new voting barriers to not only African-American voters but all voters.
“When we should be encouraging participation, we’re suppressing it,” he said.