Federal court says no to Scott administration on elections law rush-job, blames Florida for delayby Dara Kam | October 28th, 2011
A federal court has turned down Gov. Rick Scott’s request for expedited review of four of Florida’s most contentious election law changes, blaming Scott’s administration itself for delays.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning asked the three-judge panel to decide whether the four election law changes violate the federal Voting Rights Act and earlier this month asked the panel to also rule on whether the act is unconstitutional and speed up its review. Browning said a decision is needed before the Florida’s early Jan. 31 presidential preference primary or the state could be in trouble for not having the same set of elections laws in all 67 counties. Five counties – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – require federal preclearance of voting rights laws. The rest of the counties have already implemented the changes, but the five counties cannot until federal officials or a federal court approves.
In a 12-page memo issued today, the judges chastised Florida for dragging out the process by side-stepping Department of Justice review. The court said Browning waited three weeks after Scott signed the law before sending it to the Justice Department for approval, removed four provisions of the law from the department’s review after 50 days and later asked the court to expedite its review.
“Thus, the present state of affairs is, at least to an extent, a matter of Florida’s own choosing,” judges wrote. “The Court is neither willing to rush to judgment on the complex statutory and constitutional issues raised in this case nor inclined to impose unreasonable litigation burdens upon the United States and Defendant-Intervenors simply because Florida chose to schedule its primary election early in the election season.”
Browning’s proposed schedule would have given the parties only 28 days to prepare for arguments and allowed the court just two to three weeks to hold hearings and draft an opinion, the judges wrote.
“The Court finds this extraordinarily abbreviated schedule to be unworkable,” they wrote.
The GOP-dominated legisalture passed the omnibus elections bill, signed into law by Scott, earlier this year. The four portions of the law impose new restrictions on third-party voter registration groups, shorten the time frame for gathering signatures for citizens’ initiatives, reduce the number of early voting days and change Election Day rules for voters who move from one county to another. Democrats and other critics say the changes are designed to keep low-income, minority and college student voters, who helped propel President Obama into the White House three years ago, from casting ballots next year.
The ACLU of Florida, one of the intervenors in the case opposed to the new laws, applauded the court’s decision.
“The Court was right to say this is a mess created by the Governor and the Legislature. In denying their request for a ‘drive by hearing’, the Court essentially said that the state’s failure to take this issue seriously until recently is no one’s fault but their own,” ACLU Florida executive director Howard Simon said in a statement.
A federal judge in Miami last week tossed an ACLU lawsuit against the state challenging the new law.
Browning’s office said he is disappointed in the decision.
“We are disappointed that the court couldn’t accommodate our proposed schedule, but our goal has always been to ensure a fair and objective hearing. We look forward to making the case that Florida’s new election laws aren’t discriminatory,” Browning spokesman Chris Cate said in an e-mail.