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DOJ OKs non-controversial parts of Florida voting law

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. Justice Department approved 76 largely non-controversial provisions of a new Florida election law Tuesday, but a decision on the four most hotly debated sections still await a decision by a federal court in Washington, D.C.

Approval from the Justice Department or federal courts is required under the U.S. Voting Rights Act for changes to Florida election laws because of past discrimination in five of the state’s 67 counties.

Opponents say the four remaining provisions will suppress voting by minorities who tend to favor Democratic candidates. Republicans who sponsored the law say it’s needed to prevent voting fraud.

One of the unresolved sections would make it more difficult for groups such as the League of Women Voters and Boy Scouts to conduct voter registration drives.

The others reduce the number of early voting days, make it harder to get citizen initiatives on the ballot through petition drives and require voters who change their county of residence at polling places to cast provisional ballots that often go uncounted.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning, an appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, said in a statement that the Justice Department decision “confirms what we already know, that Florida’s new election laws are fair and not discriminatory.” He added that he expects a similar result on the other four provisions from the courts in time for the presidential primary election scheduled in early 2012.

Browning has said he asked for a court review of the four sections to get a decision free of “outside influence.” Opponents, though, contend he took them to court even though that will cost the state more in legal expenses because he was afraid the Justice Department would find them to be discriminatory.

Justice Department approval of the other 76 provisions “does not mean the new changes to Florida’s Voter Suppression Act are ‘fair and nondiscriminatory,’” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a statement. “The Department of Justice is only reviewing these changes for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act — not their legality or fairness overall. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.”

One of the approved provisions, meanwhile, is being challenged through a lawsuit by Florida’s statewide teachers union on grounds unrelated to discrimination.

That section allows the attorney general to fix titles or ballot summaries of proposed constitutional amendments if the courts find them defective. The Florida Education Association contends that violates the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government because only the latter can put amendment on the ballot.

The union is challenging that provision as part of a lawsuit against an amendment proposed by the Legislature to repeal Florida’s ban on using public money to aid churches and other religious organizations.

The decision partly negates an ACLU lawsuit that seeks to block implementation of the election law everywhere in Florida until it gets federal approval. Browning has declared the law to be in effect in the 62 counties not covered by the Voting Rights Act. The issue, though, remains viable in regard to the four provisions that remain under court review.

The five counties covered by the pre-clearance requirement are Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement that Scott and Browning “are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of Florida voters. This bill, and the provisions in question, are nothing more than a partisan power grab aimed at hindering the voting rights of Floridians.”

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