Twelve years after Florida decided the 2000 presidential election, one of the nation's biggest swing states is confronting a legal and political quandary over its voting standards.
A federal court in Washington D.C., ruled late Thursday that new restrictions on early voting passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature cannot take effect in five counties covered by federal voting laws.
The ruling — which said the changes could hurt participation by blacks — raises the prospect of having longer early-voting periods in places such Tampa than in urban areas such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Much of the legal wrangling during the chaotic 2000 presidential election recount centered on the different standards used for reviewing ballots.
Some voting groups — and Democratic politicians — called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to immediately force all counties to impose the same time period for early voting. The law passed last year kept the maximum total hours of early voting hours the same, but it reduced the days in which early voting was available.
"If nothing changes we will now have two sets of voting rules in Florida on Election Day," said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton. "One would think that when a court rules that the constitutional rights of a minority group will be in serious jeopardy that the governor would immediately step in to protect the rights of the citizens."
The Scott administration on Friday was still reviewing the 119-page ruling.
While the state could eventually appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, a spokesman for the governor said Florida would prefer to come up with an alternative early-voting plan that could pass muster with the court.
The three-judge panel did state in its ruling that it might be willing to approve Florida's early-voting procedures if there were guarantees that the five Florida counties covered by the ruling put in place a maximum of 96 hours of early voting. But then state officials would have to consider whether or not to order all other counties to follow the same procedure.
"There is a path to getting something done before Election Day," said Scott spokesman Brian Burgess. "We evaluating options and we going to find a solution that we believe will satisfy the court."
The changes to early voting were included last in a sweeping GOP-backed election law passed last year that immediately came under fire from Democrats and voting rights groups, including one provision that eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. Black churches have engaged in "souls to the polls" voting drives where voters are taken to a polling place after Sunday services.
The early-voting changes in last year's law have not taken effect in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe because these counties are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 due to a past history of discrimination. Any changes in voting procedures in these counties must be pre-cleared by either the Department of Justice or a federal court.
Traditionally Florida has postponed election-law changes for the entire state until the changes have been cleared for those counties. But the state last year directed the state's other counties — including ones in South Florida — to start following the new law.
In its ruling Thursday, the federal court ruled that the early-voting changes would adversely impact minority voters. The court said that evidence presented in the case showed that black voters utilized early voting much more than white voters do, especially in the 2008 election, when President Barack Obama won Florida.
"This dramatic reduction in a form of voting disproportionately used by African-Americans would be analogous to (although certainly not the same as) closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts," the three judge panel stated in its ruling.
Florida has already used two sets of voting procedures for early voting in this year's presidential primary as well as Tuesday's primary.
But Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, hinted Friday that his group was preparing to go back into court if the state moves ahead with two sets of voting standards for the November election. His group has already filed an administrative challenge over last year's directive from state election officials to county election offices.
"This dual election system is illegal and will lead to confusion and chaos in November," Simon said. "We are arguing as much in a separate ongoing legal challenge. It is our hope that that case is resolved quickly in order to prevent a new 'Florida 2000' mess of Governor Scott's and the legislature's creation."