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Monroe County won't agree to fewer early voting days

Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, tried Monday to get five counties to agree to eight 12-hour days of early voting, the truncated schedule approved by the Legislature last year but criticized by three federal judges in a ruling issued Friday.

The five counties are under U.S. supervision for any voting changes because of past discrimination. Four of the five counties agreed to the state's request: Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry. But the fifth county, Monroe, strongly disagreed with the state's request and will not go along.

"What I told them is that the days are more important than the hours," said Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer, a Republican who has held the post for 24 years. In every election in the Keys, Sawyer said, early voting participation has increased. "It's working for us," he said. "I told them, if it's not broke, don't fix it."

Sawyer said the state was asking all five counties to sign a document to be presented to the three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., in an effort by the state to secure approval, or "pre-clearance," for the new eight-day early voting schedule in all 67 counties.

"They are really pushing on the five counties showing solidarity with the other 62, that we can all work under the same plan," Sawyer said. "But I feel that this law does discriminate against minorities and working people in general. They have more access to early voting by day rather than by a shorter number of days and extending the hours ... I think daily access is more important than hourly." 

The three judges said reducing access to early voting discriminates against African-Americans, who history shows are more likely to vote early than are white voters. But in their 119-page decision, the judges clearly nudged the state in the direction Detzner tried to move on Monday.

"If the counties were instead to utilize the maximum 96 hours permitted under the new law," the judges wrote, "and offer them on a standard 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule that would provide the opportunity for voters to vote before and after the workday, Florida would likely be able to meet its burden of demonstrating that the overall effect of the changes would not be retrogressive."

-- Steve Bousquet