The week that was in Florida politics: Election time a comin', but when?

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Any Floridian with a mailbox, a telephone or a TV probably realized this week that an election is approaching.

Just when people will be able to vote might actually be up in the air.

As voters waded through nasty campaign mailers sent out by shadowy groups that may or may not have been related to candidates, as surrogates for the presidential candidates flew all over the place, a Democratic congresswoman filed a federal lawsuit over the dates when Florida voters can start casting their ballots.

Many Florida voters may not realize how close the primary is – early voting for most of us starts at the end of next week, under the state’s new election law , which is about to be used for the first time since being overhauled in 2011. But if the law hadn’t changed, voting would have started at the beginning of next week.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Democrat, joined several Duval County residents in a federal lawsuit to block changes in Florida’s election law that reduced the number of early voting days from 15 to 10. The new law, which passed over the objections of Democrats, also gives local election supervisors more discretion to decide exactly when polls will be open for early voting.

Brown’s lawsuit alleges that the changes violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Early voting has worked extremely well for all Floridians and especially for African American voters,” Brown said. “In fact, more than any other racial or ethnic group, African Americans have come to rely on early voting.”

Election officials, however, say the lawsuit is misguided, arguing that Florida voters will still have ample time to cast ballots before Election Day.

Brown’s is the latest crusade against perceived Republican-backed efforts to prevent a repeat of 2008 when a wave of new voters cast ballots early and flooded the polls on Election Day. Critics say the restrictions are thinly veiled attempts to make it harder for Democrat-leaning voters to cast ballots.

Backers say it’s a way to curb costs for cash-strapped election supervisors and prevent fraud.

Even former Gov. Charlie Crist jumped on the “let-the-people-vote” wagon this week as he told MSNBC such efforts were “unconscionable.” Crist, a Republican turned independent (and sometimes mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate), was the driving force behind efforts to automatically restore voting rights to most felons who had completed their sentences.

Crist’s reforms were short lived. Among their first actions, Gov. Rick Scott and the newly elected, all-Republican Cabinet rescinded the directive and made it even more difficult for felons to get their civil and voting rights restored.

“The idea of making it more difficult to exercise this precious right … is just unconscionable to me,” said Crist.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS GO TO COURT

Meanwhile, environmental groups in separate actions filed legal challenges this week in an effort to increase water flows to the Caloosahatchee River, and reduce nutrient-laden phosphorus levels in the Everglades.

On Friday, the Florida Audubon Society filed legal petitions to force the South Florida Water Management District to enforce more stringent laws put in place five years ago to reduce phosphorus levels coming into the Everglades.

Audubon is seeking administrative hearings on separate permits granted to U.S. Sugar Corp., Sugar Farms Cooperative and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative that the environmental group says do not require individual farms to reduce phosphorus releases to permissible levels, a requirement that began in 2007.

Water management officials say phosphorus levels have dropped significantly since 1994 and the district continues to work with farmers to lower that number even further.

Earlier in the week, environmentalists filed suit in federal court to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the Caloosahatchee River by letting the river flow.

The Corps operates three water stations on the river that control water levels downstream. In times of drought, the Corps largely cuts off the flow, leading to stagnation on the lower river that in turn leads to algae blooms and unhappy property owners and tourism officials.

PRISONS:

An appeals court this week ruled against Attorney General Pam Bondi in a long-running battle over the Legislature’s attempt last year to privatize prisons across southern Florida.

The 1st District Court of Appeal rejected Bondi’s appeal of a circuit-court ruling that blocked the privatization plan from going forward.

A three-judge panel ruled against Bondi on a procedural issue — saying she did not have the authority to file the appeal after the original state party in the case, the Department of Corrections, declined to do so.

MORE COURT FIGHTS

Meanwhile, the saga of former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer continued to play out for political observers, with a few news organizations this week reporting on recordings from the investigative file in which Greer acknowledged pulling down a lot of money while fundraising for the party, and wondering what he did with it.

And in another blast from the recent past, former House Speaker Ray Sansom late this week sued to try to recoup his legal costs from his own downfall. Sansom was ousted as speaker and later quit the Legislature over allegations of improperly steering state money when he was budget chairman. But in a criminal case, he was cleared, and now he wants to be repaid the money he spent defending himself.

CITIZENS BOARD APPROVES RATE HIKES:

The governing board of Citizens Property Insurance Corp approved tentative rate hikes averaging at least 8.8 percent for its 1.4 million policyholders.

The board also stepped down from efforts to charge new policyholders more and instead will try to increase other costs in an effort to show all Citizens customers the real cost of their below market-rate, state-backed insurance.

STORY OF THE WEEK: As the primary approaches and election intensity increases, the fight over the state’s election law continued, going to federal court in a new lawsuit, filed by Rep. Corrine Brown.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “He’s a nice guy.” Former Gov. Charlie Crist when asked what he thought of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and whether he’d be qualified to serve as vice president if he were chosen as a running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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.