Florida election official pushes back against early-voting change

TALLAHASSEE, Florida Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:19pm EDT

Related Topics

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A fight over early voting in Florida deepened on Wednesday as an election official who will oversee voting in the Florida Keys in November's presidential election refused to reduce the number of early-voting days despite a warning from the state's governor.

Harry Sawyer, the supervisor of elections in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, told Reuters he plans to allow 12 days of voting ahead of the election even though a 2011 Florida law cut the number to eight.

Florida is among a handful of states that could determine the outcome of the race between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

The issue of early-voting restrictions has also played out in Ohio, another prized swing state, where the Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to legally challenge moves by state officials to reduce the number of early-voting days.

Democrats claim early voting restrictions are designed to limit Democratic voter turnout, particularly among working-class voters, who are more likely to work jobs with less flexibility to take time off to vote. Republicans argue the measures are intended to reduce voter fraud.

In the 2008 presidential election, more than half of black voters in Florida cast their ballots during the early voting period, twice the rate of white voters.

On Tuesday, Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott said he would "take all necessary and appropriate action" to ensure that the 2011 law was enforced.

But Sawyer, a Republican, said the law does not apply in Monroe County, which must have election-law changes approved by Washington because of the county's history of voter discrimination.

"My opinion was that the old law worked fine," Sawyer said.

Last week, a U.S. federal court said in a ruling that Florida's rules reducing the number of early voting days is an unfair burden on minorities and upheld a U.S. Justice Department decision to block the change in five of the state's 67 counties.

COURT PREVENTS RULES FROM TAKING EFFECT

The federal government prevented the rules from taking effect in five counties -- Monroe, Collier, Hillsborough, Hendry and Hardee -- by invoking the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allows it to veto voting rules changes in certain states and counties with histories of racial repression.

In the court ruling, a three-judge panel suggested that extending the hours of voting over the eight-day period would be enough to satisfy federal requirements.

State election officials followed through with the suggestion and called on the five counties to offer 12 hours of early voting in each of the eight days.

Supervisors in four of the counties agreed to make the change.

Sawyer, however, said the extended hours would be less effective than the schedule currently in place. He said the plan would also cost Monroe County taxpayers more in overtime pay.

Since the new state law has not been approved by federal officials, he is not under an obligation to comply.

Sawyer, who has been supervisor for 24 years, said he had heard suggestions Scott might remove him from office if he failed to comply, but he dismissed them.

"I am not concerned about the rumors because I cannot be replaced for giving my opinion when asked," Sawyer said. "I haven't broken a law and don't feel giving an opinion is grounds for even a suspension."

(Additional reporting by Michael Hastings; Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)

FILED UNDER: