The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently remarked in its opposition to changes to Florida’s voting laws that the state is not doing enough to protect minorities from discrimination. In light of the recent furor surrounding the Treyvon Martin case, a statement like that coming from the DOJ would not come as a surprise to many. Yet this has been largely underreported. While national attention is paid to the Texas and South Carolina election cases, Florida coverage lacks.
In early March the DOJ took a stance in the Florida voting case, which it reiterated this past week, that it believes that “the state of Florida has not met its burden of proof under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, on behalf of its covered counties, that these three sets of proposed voting changes neither have the purpose or will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
The DOJ statement is an important one. Those who follow election law know that Florida has placed burdensome regulations on voter registration. Third party groups, who have traditionally registered underserved voters such as minorities and students, now face steep fines if they fail to submit voter registration forms within 48 hours of completion.
Those who don’t follow election law closely may still find this story familiar, as The Colbert Report covered the effect of the law on a Florida high school teacher. The law also shortens the popular early voting period in Florida, removing the Sunday before Election Day, one of the most popular early voting days of the cycle, and expands the use of provisional ballots.
While the initial DOJ statement received some coverage, the level of national discussion surrounding the case has been somewhat low for a case of this magnitude. There are a few reasons that this could be occurring.
The first is obvious to anyone with internet access: there are seemingly bigger problems currently in Florida. Also, this case is different from Texas and South Carolina in that it does not involve photo ID. Finally, the law is already in effect in the vast majority of the state, as the DOJ only has pre-clearance authority over five counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee, and Hendry.
If the court rules in agreement with the DOJ, striking down the changes, Florida will operate under two separate voter laws in upcoming elections. While this may not seem important to the national media, for every voter in a pre-clearance county this case matters.
The 2008 election shows us who these laws will affect. Floridians who are African American, Hispanic, or come from Spanish speaking homes are over twice as likely to register with a third party registration group than white Floridians or those from English speaking homes.
Continuing this pattern, during early voting in the five pre-clearance counties in 2008, African Americans represented 18.86% of early voters, despite being only 12.15% of the voting population. Statewide almost 54% of African American voters cast ballots at early voting sites, compared to 27% of White voters. African American voters also accounted for approximately 22% of the daily turnout at early-voting sites despite being only 13.1% of the registered voters.
This case, while important to Florida, has nationwide implications. If the law is upheld, legislatures across the country will work to pass similar restrictions. While some states have already limited early voting, a stamp of approval in pre-clearance jurisdictions could open the floodgates to similar changes across the country. The rush of Voter ID laws following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Indiana’s photo ID law, which upheld the law in some instances, shows us this.
While it may currently be overshadowed, more developments in the Florida case should be fast approaching and must be followed closely. Florida could once again change elections in America.