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Keys will hold 8 early voting days, not 12, if court orders it

Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer has told a panel of federal judges that he will hold eight days of early voting for 12 hours each day, if the judges pre-clear or approve the new schedule and find that it does not discriminate against African-American voters.

Sawyer is the only elections chief in the five Florida counties in which any voting law changes must be approved by the U.S. government or the courts. The others -- Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry -- agreed to adopt the 12-hour schedule in an effort to satisfy the three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. His stand has been met with disapproval by Gov. Rick Scott and state elections officials.

Sawyer, working with attorney Julie Ebenstein of the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami,  filed a four-page declaration with the federal court in which he insists that the change (from 14 days of early voting under the old law to eight) will have a negative or "retrogressive" effect on black voters. But if the court rules that it's non-discriminatory, he'll comply.

"I believe that according to (the election laws), as the elected supervisor of elections for Monroe County, I am the appropriate official to determine the early voting hours within the range of my discretion, in light of the needs of the county," Sawyer wrote. "It is my experience in my 24 years of service as a supervisor of elections that extending the polling hours into the early morning and late evening will not ameliorate the retrogressive effect of the decreased number of early voting days. However, if this Court preclears the early voting change for Florida, I will follow the requirements of the law, as I have for nearly two-and-a-half decades."

In response to Sawyer, the Department of State said in a statement: "We are very pleased to be another step closer to having every county in Florida utilizing the new early voting hours, which offer more flexibility to vote during the week and more voting hours on the weekend. We are optimistic the federal court will have a favorable ruling for the new early voting hours very soon."  

-- Steve Bousquet

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