Late yesterday, a three-judge panel ruled that Florida's effort to restrict early voting discriminates on the basis of race and therefore cannot go into effect in parts of the state. It is a victory for those who value democracy, and it shows the important role that fair and just federal judges play in that democracy.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must get "preclearance" before changes in their voting laws can be carried out. That preclearance can be requested either from the Department of Justice or, as in this case, from a federal district court panel of three judges. Five of Florida's 67 counties are covered by this requirement (Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hendry, and Hardee), so today's ruling applies only there.
Florida had previously had generous early voting provisions, with 96 hours of early voting over 12 days. The new Florida law allowed elections officials to hold early voting for anywhere from 48 to 96 hours over eight days. After making an intensive, fact-based analysis, the judges unanimously ruled that this would have a discriminatory impact on African Americans, who are more likely to use early voting. In addition, Florida failed to demonstrate that this would not present so severe a burden that it would likely cause some reasonable minority voters not to exercise their right to vote. The panel concluded that they would pre-clear the law if local officials in the five covered counties allow early voting for a total of 96 hours, with the polls open from 7 am – 7 pm over eight days.
The federal panel disputed Florida's argument that a voting change is permissible if it burdens only a small number of people:
Voting is a fundamental right, preservative of other basic civil and political rights, and no amount of voter disenfranchisement can be regarded as "de minimis." [internal citation omitted]
This is a perfect example of the vital role that federal courts play in our society. A group of Americans was targeted for disenfranchisement, but fair and just federal judges were there to protect their legal rights – and protect America's electoral democracy in the process.