As Florida heads toward a hotly contested governor’s race in November, Attorney General Eric Holder warned Gov. Rick Scott that the feds are "carefully monitoring" voter access in the state.
"I am deeply disturbed that during your tenure, your state has repeatedly added barriers to voting and restricted access to the polls," Holder wrote in a July 21 letter to Scott.
Holder recapped changes in state election law during Scott’s tenure, as well as the state’s attempt to purge noncitizen voters from the rolls, disenfranchisement of felons and a dispute about where voters can return absentee ballots in Pinellas County.
When the Tampa Bay Times blogged about the letter Aug. 1, Scott’s campaign dismissed Holder’s letter as a "bizarre attempt to help Charlie Crist" -- Scott’s likely Democratic opponent in November and an ally of President Barack Obama.
Holder and Scott’s campaign made some dueling claims about the state’s early voting law.
Holder wrote that 2011 changes in state law "significantly narrowed the early voting window" and that a federal three-judge panel concluded it threatened a "dramatic reduction in a form of voting disproportionately used by African-Americans."
Holder wrote: "Accordingly, the court refused to approve reduced early voting hours with respect to the five counties in Florida covered by the preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act."
That led the Scott campaign to point the finger at Holder, for allowing the 2011 early voting law to be implemented: "In fact, Attorney General Eric Holder’s own Justice Department precleared the voting changes in the 2011 law that governed the 2012 general election in Florida," Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers wrote.
At a campaign event in St. Petersburg on the same day, Scott made a similar claim:
"In 2011, we changed our voting laws, and they were precleared by the Justice Department ... ."
Since Scott, a Republican, is on the ballot this year, we decided to fact-check his statement that the Justice Department approved the early voting changes.
On first blush, the claims from Holder and Scott sound like they are in conflict: A federal court refused to allow the reduction in the early voting schedule, but Holder signed off on the changes. We found that Scott left out some important steps along the way to implementing that law.
Early voting hours changed
In 2011, the GOP-led Legislature passed HB 1355, which cut the number of days of early voting from 14 to 8, among other election changes. The law, signed by Scott, allowed supervisors to offer between 48 hours and 96 hours of early voting over eight days.
Republican supporters at the time said that the various changes in the law would better protect the state's voting system against fraud. Democrats said the changes were an attempt to suppress voter turnout.
Because of past discrimination, five counties in Florida -- Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry -- were subject to a section of the federal Voting Rights Act, which required any voting-law changes to be precleared by the federal government. (Precleared simply means approved in advance.)
Holder signaled early on that he intended to challenge Florida’s new early voting law. In a speech in Texas in December 2011, Holder said: "We're also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early-voting procedures, including the number of days in the early-voting period."
The state decided to seek preclearance from a three-judge federal panel in Washington, instead of Holder’s Justice Department. The department ended up weighing in anyway, telling the court that the state had failed to prove it was protecting minorities from discrimination.
On Aug. 16, 2012, the panel issued a ruling siding with the Justice Department’s position and refusing to approve Florida’s early votings changes. The court said the state failed to prove that minority voters would not be harmed if the five counties held the minimum number of early voting hours.
But the panel gave the state a path to get federal approval: The state could submit a plan showing a commitment to offer the maximum number of early voting hours for those counties.
The Scott administration quickly filed a plan with the federal court seeking approval for 96 hours of early voting in the five counties.
On Sept. 5, Holder filed a motion saying that his department didn’t object to that plan.
The state submitted its plan to Holder the next day, and about a week later the Justice Department signed off on it.
That November, Florida saw long lines in the 2012 presidential legislation. In 2013, the Legislature passed HB 7013, which expanded early voting to a minimum of 64 hours over eight days and maximum of 168 hours over 14 days. Later that summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the requirement for jurisdictions to seek preclearance.
But in his letter to Scott, Holder seems to be putting the state on notice that his department still has powers to enforce other provisions in the Voting Rights Act.
"Whenever warranted by the facts and the law, we will not hesitate to use all tools and legal authorities at our disposal to fight against racial discrimination, to stand against disenfranchisement and to safeguard the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot," Holder wrote.
Scott and his campaign said Florida’s 2011 voting changes were precleared by the Holder’s Justice Department.
That statement ignores the fact that the department only signed off on the state’s plan after the state agreed to offer the maximum number of early voting hours in some counties to satisfy a court ruling. So approval came only after the state committed to offering the maximum number of hours in places that had a past history of discrimination.
Scott's statement leaves out important details that led to Holder’s Department signing off on Florida’s election plan. We rate his claim Half True.