Florida election officials say Supreme Court ruling eases uncertainty

The Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday in an Alabama voting case will clear up uncertainty that can cloud state election laws subject to federal supervision, Florida election officials said.

Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, said the ruling gave Florida the ability to chart its own course.

The 5-4 ruling in Shelby Co. (Ala.) v. Holder struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that used an antiquated formula to ban state or local governments from discriminating against minorities on the basis of race or language.

voting placeNo Florida jurisdiction was covered under the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dealt only with race. However, when Congress renewed the law in 1975, it added a formula that included language and voter participation. With the formula, five Florida counties – Collier, Hardy, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – were found to have a history of voting discrimination against Spanish-speaking voters.

The court threw out the formula Tuesday, calling it invalid.

“The formula captured states by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “But such tests have been banned for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in covered states have risen dramatically.”

The court left open the possibility racial and language formulas could be revived, but only with up-to-date information. That would require action widely considered unlikely in this session of Congress.

“I think it’s very important that all of our elections be honest, ethical, fair, all those things,” Scott said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“I want to make sure there’s no racial discrimination in any of our elections. But any time that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, I think that’s great for our state.”

‘That’s going to be the law’

At the local level, elections officials will be able to act more quickly to laws enacted in Tallahassee because they won’t have to wait until the legislation is reviewed in Washington, Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Election, told BizPac Review on Tuesday.

“Once the Legislature acts and the bill becomes law, that’s going to be the law in Florida,” he said.

Tim Durham, chief deputy supervisor of elections in Collier County, said the ruling could help dispel election-law uncertainty that can affect voter behavior.

“You run the risk of voter confusion,” he said. “That’s never a good thing.”

Democrats across Florida and the nation, however, excoriated the ruling.

“The Voting Rights Act has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans and our Democracy is stronger for it,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “Today’s decision is a setback for voting rights and all Americans who believe protecting the right to vote is essential to our democracy.”

Election law must be uniform statewide, so since the five counties were covered by the Voting Rights Act, all state voting laws were subject to the law’s provisions, said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the ACLU of Florida.

The ACLU of Florida and other liberal groups have used the act to challenge numerous election law changes enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

But to the ACLU of Florida, the only certainty now is election law challengers will have a harder time proving their case, said Howard Simon, the group’s executive director.

The court’s ruling means an important weapon in guarding the right to vote is powerless, he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

“The tool that we have used most frequently to challenge … voter suppression has been removed by the Supreme Court,” Simon said. “Federal oversight is the most effective protector of the right to vote.”


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