JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Stick a pin almost anywhere on a map of Florida and you’ll find a legal battle over who will be eligible to vote in the coming presidential election — and when, and how, and where.
In a state crucial to Mitt Romney’s battle to replace President Obama, a law passed in 2011 by the Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) has created an awesome wake of litigation.
The law imposes more than 75 changes, including restrictions on who can register voters and limits on the time allowed for early voting. Sponsors of the measure said it creates a more reliable system that combats voter fraud, while opponents, a group that included every Democratic lawmaker, called it a partisan ploy to suppress voters who traditionally favor Democrats.
But unlike the frenzied trip to the U.S. Supreme Court that followed the close of voting in the 2000 presidential race, the Sunshine State’s legal battles are being waged in advance of the November vote.
“Florida is desperately trying not to be the next Florida,” said Richard L. Hasen, an expert on election law whose new book, “The Voting Wars,” begins with a chapter titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Florida.”
There could be many contenders for the title this fall. In battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, changes in voting laws have resulted in high-stakes legal battles over whose ballots will be counted.
One of the many legal battles in Florida was answered last week, when a panel of federal judges ruled that the new limits on early voting could not be implemented in five counties that receive special scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act. Florida, said the unanimous ruling, “has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters.”
That will hardly be the last judicial decision affecting Florida’s nearly 11.5 million voters before polls close on Nov. 6.
In Miami, minority groups have sued the state over whether its plan to purge the voter lists of noncitizens might result in legitimate voters losing their rights.
In Tampa, a similar lawsuit asks whether the state’s plan to purge the lists violated a different section of the federal law.
In Tallahassee, judges in two courts considered a host of suits and countersuits, including one change that caused the League of Women Voters to suspend voter-registration efforts for fear of criminal penalties.
And here in Duval County, where African Americans make up a larger portion of voters than in any of Florida’s other large counties, Elder Lee E. Harris has joined a lawsuit that would require the state to continue to allow early voting on the Sunday before the election.
Harris said he devotes part of the Sunday worship service at Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church to making sure each of the church’s approximately 280 worshipers is registered to vote. He hands out an 11-point checklist about voting eligibility.
On the Sunday before the election, church vans and church members with cars ferry those without transportation to county early-voting stations.
“Sunday in the African American community is traditionally our day of rest, and once that early voting — ‘take your souls to the polls’ — caught on here, it became easier for people to get involved in voting,” Harris said. “Early voting in the minority community paid off.”
Harris’s view is supported by a study done by University of Florida election-law specialist Daniel A. Smith, hired by Harris and other challengers to the limits on early voting, including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D).
On the Sunday before the 2008 presidential election, Smith said, 43 percent of the early votes cast that day came from African Americans, even though they make up only 28 percent of the county’s electorate. In a 2011 mayoral contest, there were more black voters than white voters on the Sunday before the election, he said.
The 2011 law reduced the number of days that Florida’s 67 counties may offer early voting from 14 to eight and reduced the minimum number of hours polls must be open from 96 to 48. It did require for the first time that all counties offer Sunday voting — it was optional before — but specified that the Sunday could not be the one two days before the election.
Five of Florida’s counties — the largest of which is Hillsborough, which includes Tampa — are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of discrimination, requiring approval from federal authorities of election-law changes.
And a three-judge panel in Washington agreed Thursday that Florida could not prove the early-voting changes would not significantly cut back on black voter participation.