Justice Department approves controversial changes to Florida’s elections laws

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Secretary of State Kurt Browning today announced that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has approved all 76 provisions of House Bill 1355, also known as the 2011 Elections Bill, that the DOJ was reviewing for preclearance. By law, the 76 provisions went into effect upon DOJ’s approval in the five Florida counties requiring preclearance. The new elections law has already been in effect in Florida’s other 62 counties, as required by the new law itself.

“I am appreciative of the work the DOJ has done to approve Florida’s new election laws,” said Secretary Browning. “Their decision confirms what we already know, that Florida’s new election laws are fair and not discriminatory. I expect the federal district court will also agree that the new laws are fair when it reviews the remaining provisions.”

The federal Voting Rights Act requires five Florida counties, Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe, to have any changes to election law precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the preclearance review process is to ensure that changes to election law do not discriminate on the basis of race or color.

Recently, Secretary Browning asked the federal district court in Washington, D.C. to approve four provisions of House Bill 1355. These four provisions are the only remaining portions of House Bill 1355 needing preclearance. The specific three judge panel who will be reviewing the provisions has not yet been determined. A decision on the remaining four provisions is expected to be made in time for the presidential preference primary next year.

The sections of House Bill 1355 that have been sent to the federal district court for approval include:

Section 4 – Relating to 3rd Party Voter Registration Organizations

  • Section 4 requires third party voter registration organizations to submit completed voter registration applications to their county supervisors of elections office within 48 hours. Previously, such organizations were allowed 10 days. The change helps ensure the voter registration process is expedited in a reasonable amount of time for the benefit of the new voter and the voter registration organization.

Section 23 – Relating to Petition Signature Verification

  • Section 23 requires supervisors of elections to notify the sponsor of a citizen initiative petition proposing constitutional amendments if their petition has been misfiled. It also requires each signer’s home address to be included in a submission, and provides that a signature is valid for two years rather than four years. The changes in this section will add accountability to citizen initiative petitions. They are also expected to help ensure petition signatures remain relevant to the time in which they were provided.

 

Section 26 – Relating to Out-of-County Address Changes at the Polling Place

  • Section 26 requires voters who wish to change their address to a different county at the polling place on the day of an election to vote a provisional ballot. The measure is intended to combat voter fraud by preventing voters from casting a vote in multiple counties. In order to ensure all provisional ballots will be accurately counted, Secretary Browning issued a directive requiring provisional ballots be approved in all cases when the voter is registered and eligible to cast a ballot. House Bill 1355 also amended Florida law to allow voters to more easily change their address before casting a ballot. Voters can now change their address by calling, emailing or faxing the county supervisor of elections office.

 

Section 39 – Relating to Early Voting

Section 39 increases the maximum number of early voting hours in a day from eight hours to 12 hours a day. The change is expected to benefit voters who wish to vote before or after traditional work hours. The maximum number of hours of early voting remains 96 hours. Therefore, early voting will be over the course of 8 days rather than 14 days. However, weekend voting will be increased to a maximum of 36 hours rather than the previous 16 allowable hours.

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.