Elections officials in Florida and the five counties covered under the Voter Rights Act had mixed reactions to the Supreme Court decision.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Florida’s chief election official and a Republican, hailed the ruling, which applies to Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties.
“I just never thought that the Justice Department, with 41-year-old data from states, was relevant any more. I think the courts are a better judge of these issues than the Justice Department,” Detzner said.
But Hendry County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Hoots, a Democrat, said the federal oversight provided safeguards.
“It’s not micromanaging. I think sometimes they step in to keep drastic changes from happening,” said Hoots, who spent more than two decades as an elections worker before her November election.
The federal review prevented Hoots’s county from holding “a special election at the drop of a hat,” she said. “Everything has its good points and its bad.”
The ruling means that the counties no longer must get federal approval for changes such as relocating precinct sites — unless Congress were to pass a new formula based on current conditions.
Not having the federal oversight will make it easier for local officials to more quickly adapt to long lines or other problems while elections are already underway, said Collier County Chief Deputy Supervisor Tim Durham, who reports to Collier Elections Supervisor Jennifer Edwards, a Republican.
“One of the things that’s always been worrisome is that it makes it hard to adjust to emergency situations if you have to pre-clear every single voting change through the Justice Department,” he said.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act affected Florida elections in 2012 to the extent that the five counties were required to hold 14 days of early voting during the August primaries instead of the eight days that the rest of Florida held. Florida passed a new election law in 2011 that reduced the number of early voting days, but the U.S. Justice Department had not approved those changes for the five counties by August.
A federal court approved the shortened early voting period in time for the November general election, allowing uniform elections throughout the state. Some civil rights advocates expressed fears that voters in the five counties would be confused, but that didn’t happen in Collier, Durham said.
Still, he said, the Supreme Court ruling “does create more consistency statewide.”
Durham also noted that Collier is different from the other Florida counties requiring federal supervision because it was added to the list in the 1970s because of an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking voters.
“Collier County was never a part of what was going on in other parts of the country, particularly the deep South, where there was blatant, overt discrimination occurring,” Durham said. “I always felt that given our situation and the other Florida counties that are in it, we never should have been under it anyway.”
Another part of the Voting Rights Act also requires some counties with certain demographics, including Collier and Palm Beach, to provide voting materials in other languages. That part of the law was not affected by the Supreme Court ruling, meaning counties like Collier and Palm Beach will continue to print ballots in Spanish as well as English.
Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer, a Democrat, said voters in the affected counties probably won’t see much of an impact from the decision in next year’s election, and he said other protections remain for voters to challenge laws that they believe violates their voting rights.
“Any citizen or citizen group can certainly bring action in the court if they think something’s unfair or unjust,” he said. “There are avenues to be able to pursue to make sure there’s quality and openness and fairness but it all starts at home and that’s what we’re going to do.”