By Nick Raffaele
While Florida’s relationship with early voting is still relatively new, the honeymoon may already be over. But to understand the hot and cold affair, it is helpful to look back on the couple’s history. Former Governor Jeb Bush first signed early voting into Florida law in 2004, providing early voting fifteen days before an election, eight hours per weekday and eight hours per weekend. Only a short year later, Bush and a Republican legislature cooled on the partnership, dropping the last Monday of early voting before a Tuesday election. The relations heated up again when former Governor Charlie Crist signed an executive order mandating that early voting be extended in response to overwhelming voter turnout for the 2008 Presidential election. Under the leadership of Governor Rick Scott, Florida again turned its back on early voting in 2011 by passing a controversial law that reduced early voting to eight days before an election for a minimum of six hours and a maximum of twelve hours per day.
The 2011 spat resulted in Florida’s embarrassing performance during the 2012 Presidential elections, where hundreds of thousands of Florida voters were discouraged by long lines and polling stations remained open hours after they were scheduled to close. All of which brings us to our most recent development, in which Rick Scott has given the reigns of the rocky relationship to county election supervisors. This newest law allows early voting to range from eight to fourteen days before an election, for a minimum of eight hours a day and a maximum of twelve hours a day. Of course, these extremely wide bounds left open the question of how early voting would actually be implemented on the ground. As we complete primaries ahead of the 2014 round of elections, the results are finally in.
As it turns out, localities have not taken advantage of the extra leeway the new law provides. Forty-six of sixty-seven counties in Florida reduced the number of hours of early voting compared to the 2010 elections, on average providing eleven hours less than they were before the 2011 reduction. Unfortunately, Florida voters offended by these reductions are not likely to get any reprieve from the courts. Ohio is currently being challenged regarding their reduction in early voting from thirty-five to twenty-eight days, with a simultaneous prohibition on most Sunday voting and early voting after 5:00 p.m. The district court issued an order requiring Ohio to maintain their typical thirty-five day early voting period, and the sixth circuit court of appeals upheld the order. However, the Supreme Court has put this order on hold until they can decide whether to grant the state’s petition. If this stay is any indication, the Supreme Court will not be receptive to plaintiffs claiming that early voting precedents should be maintained against the will of state legislatures.
The implications for Florida voters are profound. Florida will not likely face any consequences as county election supervisors provide minimum provisions for early voting. Empirical studies have shown that reductions in early voting disproportionately affect minorities, Democrats, and those without party affiliations. Demographics already predisposed to lower participation will be further discouraged from turning out in elections. As it stands, Florida’s romance with early voting appears to have fizzled. Whether county election supervisors use their discretion to implement more robust early voting provisions for the next major election remains to be seen.