TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed Wednesday to accept Florida's revised early-voting plan for five counties covered by the federal Voting Rights Act.
Holder filed his response with a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. Last month, the panel ruled that a new Florida election law that reduced early voting to 8 days from as many as 14 violated the federal law in the designated counties because they could discourage minority voting.
The judges, though, indicated they'd approve a plan that still provided 96 hours of early voting — the same as under Florida's previous law. The state plan submitted by Republican Gov. Rick Scott's administration meets that criteria with eight 12-hour days including 12 on a Sunday that weren't previously offered.
That didn't satisfy the head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"The rug is about to be pulled out from under the rights of minorities, especially black voters," said Howard Simon, the group's executive director.
The ACLU is among several individuals and groups that intervened in the case against the early-voting limitation and other provisions in the election law passed last year by the Republican-led Legislature.
Justice Department or federal court preclearance is required for any changes in election laws affecting five Florida counties — Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry, Hardee and Monroe — due to past racial discrimination.
"I want voting in Florida to be easy and fair for everyone," Scott said in a statement. "Today's decision by the federal Department of Justice is an encouraging sign that we're headed in the right direction, especially in light of a 52% increase in early voting compared to the 2008 election cycle."
The Scott administration submitted the plan after supervisors of elections in four of the covered counties endorsed it.
"The governor has successfully bullied four of them into agreeing," Simon said.
Monroe County's Harry Sawyer was the lone holdout. On Aug. 31, though, he filed a court statement saying he's still against the state's plan but would comply if it is approved by the three-judge panel.
Scott at one point hinted he might remove Sawyer from office if he didn't go along. Supervisors are independently elected officials who from time to time have questioned the state's authority to tell them how to run their offices.
Sawyer, who had intervened in the case, wrote in his statement that early voting hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. would not fully ameliorate the "retrogressive effect on minority voters" of reducing the number of days.
However, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote in Holder's response that the state plan "would more than double early voting opportunities on weekends by increasing weekend hours from 16 hours total to 36 hours total during the early voting period."
Blacks historically have voted in heavy numbers on Sundays during early-voting periods.
The early voting reduction is one of several changes made to Florida's election law by the Legislature that drew opposition from Democrats and other critics who contended they were designed to suppress voting by minorities and young people who tend to vote Democratic. GOP sponsors argued the changes were aimed at curtailing voting fraud. Similar legal battles are playing out in other states after Republican-controlled legislatures moved to limit early voting or passed voter ID laws.
A federal judge in Tallahassee has blocked another provision that put new requirements on voter-registration drives, including a 48-hour deadline for turning applications in to election officials. That ruling, which affects all 67 Florida counties, restored a 10-day deadline in the old law.
The eight-day early-voting limit was in effect in 62 counties for this year's primary elections while the five covered counties followed the old law.
Simon said he was unsure of the ACLU's next step but noted that the court had signaled its intent to accept the state plan despite agreeing with evidence that the reduction in early-voting days was retrogressive.