A final scrum in Florida over early voting on Election Eve

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Even in the final hours before Election Day, the changes to early voting that roiled the state’s election system for more than a year and sparked weeks of court challenges remained controversial — and led to one last bit of litigation, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

All of it came as elections supervisors in a handful of Florida counties worked to find ways to allow more voters to cast ballots as the state continues to play a pivotal role in the electoral calculations of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Also in the balance were the fates of 190 state and federal lawmakers and hundreds of local officials.

The Florida Democratic Party rushed to court over the weekend to attempt to keep elections offices open and allow in-person absentee voting after the time for early voting under the new rules ran out. They won a case in Orange County, where a voting site had been evacuated based on a bomb scare.

A county supervisor has discretion about whether and when to accept in-person absentee votes, which differ only slightly from early voting. Some counties even opened offices Sunday to make up for a reduction in early voting days from at least 12 to no more than eight, a change approved by the Legislature in 2011.

Democrats eventually struck an agreement with the supervisors — chiefly in Broward County, which agreed to allow in-person absentee voting until at least 5 p.m. Monday and then from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“This is an important step in making sure that all those who are eligible to vote have the opportunity to do so,” said Scott Arceneaux, the party’s executive director.

Some counties have long allowed voters to cast in-person absentee ballots in the final days before an election. But the process took on extra significance this year with the early-voting changes. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, a critic of the early-voting changes, said his county has seen an uptick in other methods of voting this year.

“I think citizens that wanted to access the process have availed themselves of all the available methods to do so,” Sancho said.

Leon County offices did not open Sunday but did accept in-person absentee voting Monday.

The Democratic Party’s action had been spurred by long lines. Some voters reportedly waited in line several hours to cast their ballots on Saturday, the last official day of early voting, with some voting in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Opponents of the 2011 changes blamed those lines on the attempt to compress the early voting period.

“This is a clear legacy of the effort to restrict voting this year,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, blasted Republican Gov. Rick Scott for rejecting requests last week from Democrats and other groups to extend early-voting hours.

“The governor knew about this problem, received appeals to do something, but chose to look the other way,” Simon said. “It is time for the governor to begin to act like the governor of all Floridians, and not a political partisan unconcerned that many Floridians were required to stand in line for hours to cast their vote.”

Officials saw things differently, with Secretary of State Ken Detzner saying Monday morning that it had been a “great weekend for democracy” and that 4.4 million Floridians had already cast votes through early voting or absentee ballots, close to the 4.5 million who did so four years ago. He predicted the state would ultimately pass that number, though he shied away from immediately passing judgment on whether the process was a success.

“I’ll call that when it’s all over,” he said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.