Florida Keys News
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Voting case may hit home
High court ponders Ga. county request

Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin said Wednesday that she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't strike down a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires federal preclearance before the implementation of changes in how elections are run in the Keys.

"It benefits us. It's like another watchdog," Griffin said.

Her comments came on the day that the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Shelby County, Ala. v. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In the case, Shelby County is vying to have Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act overturned.

Congress overwhelmingly extended the measure for 25 years in 2006.

The section requires the Justice Department to sign off on changes to election procedures in certain states, counties and cities with a history of discrimination -- most of them located in the South.

Monroe County, due to its failure to offer Spanish language ballots in the 1970s, is one of five Florida counties subject to the law.

Shelby County argues that Section 5 of the act should be overturned because it doesn't account for the overwhelming easing of discrimination and intimidation that has taken place in the South since the Voting Rights Act was passed.

According to media reports on the 70-minute Supreme Court hearing Wednesday, the court's five-member conservative wing, including the potential swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, appeared ready to strike down Section 5.

The conservative justices questioned whether the provisions in Section 5 remain relevant today, and indeed, whether areas covered by the law remain different from areas that aren't.

The court's four liberal justices took a different tone, suggesting that preclearance of election changes are important during an era in which lawsuits continue to regularly be brought against voter ID laws and other measures that some believe target minorities.

Preclearance was a major issue in Monroe County during the 2012 election cycle after the Florida Legislature passed a law reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to eight.

Prior to the August primary, a three-judge panel in Washington ruled that the law violated the Voting Rights Act in counties subject to Section 5 because it could discourage minority voting.

As a result, while 62 Florida counties were required to reduce early voting days during the primary, Monroe and the four other preclearance counties -- Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry and Hardee -- operated on the 14-day early voting schedule.

Then-Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer was an especially strong advocate of maintaining the more extended early voting schedule, even drawing national news coverage for his stance.

But before the general election, Attorney General Holder agreed to a plan in which the number of early voting days was cut to eight, but with the voting hours extended from eight hours daily to 12 hours daily.

Sawyer was required to sign on.

Griffin blamed the shortened early voting period for the 2,500 fewer early ballots that were cast in the Keys in 2012 as opposed to 2008.

She said that under Voting Rights Act, Monroe County can apply to be removed as a preclearance county, but Sawyer, and now her, have chosen not to.

"It worked for us," Griffin said.


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