TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s top elections official on Tuesday challenged federal oversight of state elections as part of an earlier lawsuit seeking approval of portions of a Republican-sponsored election law
It’s a statute that opponents say will suppress the turnout of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.
Any state election law changes must be submitted to the federal government for “preclearance” to determine if they comply with the federal Voting Rights Act because of past discrimination in five Florida counties.
The Justice Department has approved all except four hotly contested sections of the law that Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed after it was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature this year.
Those four sections reduce the number of early voting days, slap new requirements on groups conducting voter registration drives, require voters changing out-of-county addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots and make it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.
Sponsors say those changes are designed to prevent voting fraud. Similar measures have recently been passed in other states with Republican Legislatures and governors.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Scott appointee, in July asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to approve the law instead of leaving it up to Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration. Browning said moving the decision to the court would free it from “outside influence.”
The amended complaint contends federal approval no longer is necessary because times have changed since 1972 when racial and ethnic discrimination was confirmed in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties. The five counties are in an area that stretches from Tampa, which is part of Hillsborough, to Key West in Monroe.
Browning said in a statement that he supports most provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“But there is no constitutional basis to arbitrarily single out five Florida counties and a few other covered jurisdictions, based solely on information from decades ago, and subject them to procedures that don’t apply to the rest of the country,” Browning said.
A judge on the same federal court dismissed a similar challenge by Alabama’s Shelby County on Sept. 21.
Congress was justified in finding discrimination in the covered jurisdictions still existed in 2006 when it extended the 1965 Voting Rights Act for 25 years, U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote in a 151-page opinion.
Browning has declared the four contested provisions to be in effect everywhere in Florida except in the five preclearance counties.
Opponents of those provisions include the American Civil Liberties Union. Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon said Scott and Browning essentially want the court to rule that they don’t have to follow federal law.
“It’s an admission that they know that the federal courts are likely to find that the `Voter Suppression Act’ passed this year is a serious threat to the voting rights of Florida’s language and racial minorities,” Simon said in a statement.
The ACLU, Project Vote, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other opponents have asked to intervene in the lawsuit.
Besides the five Florida counties the preclearance requirement also covers certain counties in California, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota as well as some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire.
It also applies to the entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
The requirement is based on past discrimination not only against blacks, but also American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said Browning’s latest move “is a transparent effort to avoid compliance with the Voting Rights Act” and will spend taxpayers’ money to prevent taxpayers from voting.
Smith said the Florida law will disproportionately affect blacks, younger voters and the elderly, who are more likely to support Obama and Democratic policies.
“It is the most blatant attempt to suppress voting since we did away with the poll tax,” Smith said.