Florida early voting starts in first test of laws easing restrictions



There was no early voting in Florida until 2002, when lines around the block at polling places immediately proved the experiment a success.

So much so that eight years later, when the Republican-controlled Legislature curtailed early voting days and eliminated it the Sunday before elections — a popular time for minorities with a tradition of after-church, souls-to-the-polls trips — a public uproar led lawmakers to reverse course.

Monday marks the first time since that legal change took effect in January 2014, allowing county elections supervisors to permit as much as two weeks of early voting, for 8-12 hours each day.

Eighteen counties, including Palm Beach County, are starting early voting Monday, the earliest day the new law allows. Voters in Martin and St. Lucie counties won’t go to the early voting polls until Saturday.

This fix comes even as lawmakers have been called into a special session to make another.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis threw out the state’s newly redrawn congressional district maps this past month on the grounds they “made a mockery” of voter-approved constitutional standards barring them from favoring incumbents or parties.

Lewis specifically cited districts held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, as unconstitutional. He ordered that new maps be presented by Aug. 15.

With early voting starting Aug. 11, a state frequently ridiculed for voting irregularities and allegations of voter suppression faces the possibility of many votes being tossed out after districts in which they were cast are redrawn.

The Legislature is set to vote early this week on a proposed fix that would change Brown’s and Webster’s districts, as well as five other districts touching them.

The changes don’t reach as far south as the Treasure Coast or Palm Beach County, but District 17, the seat held by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, would be one of the seven affected.

However, whether those changes will be accepted, and whether they will be used in this year’s elections, ultimately will be up to Judge Lewis, who has set court arguments on both questions for Aug. 20.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said last week she doubted the county would be affected. Early voting will proceed as scheduled, she said.

“Voters will vote on what we have now,” Bucher said. “We have no choice.”

Early voting can be done from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 14 sites from Belle Glade to Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens. The races include party primaries as well as non-partisan contests, for judicial and school board seats, for example.

The county has 841,833 registered voters, 367,091 of them Democrats, 235,828, Republicans, and 238,914 in other parties or no party.

In the 2012 general election in Palm Beach County, one in five votes was cast early, 125,001 out of 605,881.

Of those early votes, 69,669 were cast by Democrats, 29,166 by Republicans.

Traditionally Democrats have taken advantage of early voting more than Republicans, and Democratic precinct workers are calling voters and urging them to vote early or turn in absentee ballots, Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County, said Friday.

“The advantage for everyone is that it’s more convenient, and there’s a greater number of choices for hours and locations,” she said. Early voters can go to any of the 14 sites in the county and are not limited to their own precincts, which is helpful for working people who might find it hard to take time out to vote, she said.

Another plus this year, she said, is that Bucher made an effort to use larger venues for polling places, such as the county convention center, to reduce the likelihood of long lines. That was a choice that was also made possible by the new elections law passed by the Legislature in 2013.

Anita Mitchell, the county’s GOP chairwoman, said her party and its candidates are pushing hard through mailings to get out absentee and early votes.

“It’s absentee, absentee, absentee, early voting — it’s just a matter of messaging,” she said.

The expansion of early voting is good for governance and democracy, she said. The downside is if a candidate does something terrible in the last week before an election and voters can’t react because they’ve already cast ballots, she said. But the odds of that happening are slim and the up side outweighs the down, Mitchell said.

“From the point of view of the Republicans, the more people we get out to vote, the better it is.”

Staff Writer John Kennedy contributed to this story.



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