Florida early voting starts Saturday, with wide variations in hours across the state

Early voting in Florida begins Saturday, nearly a week later than in past years — and with wide variations in hours from county to county.

The majority of voters will have access to the maximum possible hours of 96, spread over eight straight 12-hour days. That’s because supervisors of elections in all large counties chose that schedule, seeking to maximize turnout and reduce chances of long lines on Election Day and confusion from the change in early voting days.

The Legislature last year reduced the number of days from 14 to eight, ending on a Saturday three days before the Nov. 6 election. The state had required 96 hours of early voting but the law was changed to allow at least 48 hours and a maximum of 96, while eliminating early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties are offering the maximum 96 hours, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for eight consecutive days, beginning Saturday.

"Miami-Dade voters are accustomed to the availability of early voting for 96 hours," said Christina White, the deputy county election supervisor, in a statement. "To minimize the inconvenience to our voters after the change in law, we felt it was in their best interest to continue offering the maximum numbers of hours allowable by law."

Miami-Dade elections officials are holding a press conference Friday to announce its early voting hours and locations. They are also advising voters to come prepared because of a longer than usual ballot.

“Miami-Dade voters can expect to receive a ballot that is least five pages front and back, so it has never been more important for voters to make their decisions in advance of going to the polls,” said Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley. “This will help expedite the voting experience for all of our voters.”

"We do have a net reduction in overall early voting hours," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who analyzes state election laws. "That is a concern to me, and it was a concern to the Justice Department, too."

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration spent a year and nearly $500,000 in legal fees successfully defending the shorter eight-day schedule from lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocacy groups that claimed it was a Republican plot to suppress voter turnout.

A panel of three federal judges approved the eight-day schedule, but not until all five counties under U.S. voting rights supervision agreed to the 96-hour timetable. Those counties are Monroe, Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry, the only ones affected by the court’s decision.

The judges said that if a county cut early voting to as little as six hours a day, it would be analogous to "closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts ... [and] would impose a sufficiently material burden to cause some reasonable minority voters not to vote."

In their August decision, the justices noted that in the 2008 presidential election in Florida, black voters voted early at twice the rate of white voters and were much more likely to vote in the first five days of the early voting period — the days that state lawmakers eliminated.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he supports early voting decisions by county elections officials.

"Supervisors are very sensitive to the needs of their constituents," Detzner said. "They have good judgment."

Because the new law gives more discretion to county elections officials, about 30 mostly small counties will offer less early voting time than they did before. They include:

•  Gadsden County, the only Florida county with a majority of black voters, which will have 72 hours of early voting, including seven hours on Sunday.

•  Osceola County, in the heart of the I-4 corridor with a fast-growing population of Hispanics, which will have 12 hours of early voting every day except Sunday, when six centers will be open for seven hours, from noon to 7 p.m.

Seven counties will offer 18 total hours of early voting on the weekend, the minimum allowed by state law. They are Bradford, Franklin, Liberty, Madison, Okeechobee, Suwannee and Gilchrist.

In tiny Trenton, west of Gainesville, Gilchrist County Supervisor of Elections Connie Sanchez said voters don’t believe voting should be allowed on Sunday for religious reasons.

"It’s the day of the Lord, and being in a small county, that’s just the way we feel," Sanchez said. "We told them we have to be open for eight days in a row, so we’re open for the minimum hours on Sunday."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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