Elections law now headed to court after ACLU sues

Tallahassee, FL – With the exception of five counties that need federal permission before their election rules can be changed, a new voting law is now in effect in Florida. But Tom Flanigan reports that very fact has sparked a lawsuit that aims to have the new law overturned.

The Florida Legislature passed sweeping changes to the state's election law this session. The number of early voting days was cut, although supporters claim the number of early voting hours is unchanged. There are tougher requirements on third-party voter registration campaigns. Anyone trying to change their name or address on Election Day would have to cast a provisional ballot instead of a regular one. And Governor Scott signed the bill into law on May nineteenth. That same day, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning called reporters into his office to give them a situational update.

"The effective date of 1355 is upon becoming law, so it is now law."

"Thirteen-fifty-five, by the way, is the formal bill number of the new elections law. The secretary was quick to point out, however, that the law wasn't the law in all sixty-seven Florida counties yet.

"There are five counties, those counties being Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe. So those five counties obviously it's not effective in those counties. We've checked with those five counties and we've been told they don't have elections coming up until October, so we're confident that the bill would be pre-cleared well before October."

Pre-clearance is in fact permission from the U.S. Department of Justice for the change in Florida's election law to take effect in those five counties. That's because Florida is one of the states that must obtain that permission under something called Section Five of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Florida fell under that section because of its historic practice of discouraging minority voter participation. So, until that pre-clearance comes, Florida essentially has two sets of voting laws in place. Something that even Secretary of State Browning says isn't supposed to happen.

"I believe that the election code was written for a purpose and that was to provide uniform application of that law across all 67 counties, regardless of size, regardless of socio-economic factors the law is the law."

Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union couldn't agree more. So on Friday, June third, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court for the Southern District of Florida. Laughlin McDonald is the lead attorney for the ACLU in the case
"We are simply seeking to enforce Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions that are subject to Section Five to get federal approval before they can implement any changes in their voting practices or procedures."

There's another point of legal quibble. As Secretary Browning pointed out, Florida did not seek federal approval until after Governor Scott signed the bill into law.

"The pre-clearance package we're hurriedly putting that together now and we'll be submitting that to the Department of Justice sooner now than later."
Something that ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon says should have happened MUCH sooner.

"Not only did they not follow the law in seeking pre-clearance, but when it is then subject to pre-clearance, we think it is questionable whether pre-clearance will in fact be granted, which means that this law may not be implemented."

Bottom line, says ACLU's Simon, Florida's secretary of state jumped the gun.

"His May 19th memo says most changes take effect immediately upon becoming law. He was wrong. That memo should not have been issued and it was a mistake on his part to issue that memo."

It's now up to a panel of three federal judges in South Florida to make the call.