A Devil in the Details of Florida’s Early Voting Law

Justin Levitt here. Rick invited me to post about Florida’s HB 1355, signed by Governor Rick Scott last Thursday. The bill was drawing plentiful controversy well before it became law, and many aspects of the law have been critiqued. But with so much attention on other ecclesiastical matters over the weekend, one church-related devil in the bill’s details seems to have provoked only a few murmurs. And it may be a piece with relevance for the preclearance process.

Before Thursday, Florida’s early vote period spanned 14 days, with 8 hours of voting per weekday and 8 total weekend hours: 96 hours of early voting, total. The new early vote period runs 8 days, with 6-12 hours of voting per day: also up to 96 hours of early voting, total. Most reporting characterizes this as “the same number [of hours], but over fewer days.”
These are not, however, the same 96 hours. The former period ran for two weeks, from Monday through the Sunday before Election Day. Now, the period will run from Saturday through Saturday. Leaving off the final Sunday. Which matters.
Using early vote data that Florida posts online (and, by the way, kudos to the state for making such information available), I’ve crunched the numbers. At first glance, it looks like getting rid of the final Sunday has relatively little impact — both 2008 and 2010 show a pretty steep drop-off in voting on the final Sunday.
Dig deeper, though, and you get a different story. Here are the tallies by county for 2008 and 2010. Under the flexible language of the former law (8 total weekend hours), most Florida counties (in gray on the charts) didn’t offer early voting on the Sunday before the election. The larger, more urban counties — Miami-Dade, Duval, Palm Beach, Broward (in 2008) — chose to make voting available on Sunday, and voters responded.
The ecclesiastical tie? One of the reasons that election officials in these counties decided to open their doors for early voting on the Sunday before the election is to accommodate voters with long weekday workdays, who travel en masse from church to the polls, discharging their civic obligations after fulfilling their spiritual ones. And the preclearance tie? The urban counties that offered early voting on the Sunday before the election — who under the new law are precluded from doing so — are mostly the counties with the largest African-American populations. The racial breakdown of Florida’s early voters isn’t publicly available — but it is tracked, and could be analyzed. And I’d be surprised if African-American citizens weren’t a substantial portion of the Floridians choosing to vote in their Sunday best.

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