Florida Dems sue to keep early voting open; Sunday voting resumes in 5 counties

This post has been updated.

Hours after Florida Democrats filed suit in federal court over Gov. Rick Scott’s refusal to issue an executive order extending the amount of time available to vote early, Miami-Dade County reopened its polls to Sunday voters. Now, four other counties have followed suit.

The Florida Democratic Party’s executive director, Scott Arceneaux, released a statement just before 1 p.m. Sunday, saying:

“If you live in one of five Florida counties – Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange or Pinellas – you can vote today. Voters can go to their county Supervisor of Election office to cast their absentee ballot in person. Additionally, voters in Orange County can early vote this afternoon in Winter Park at the Winter Park Library (460 E. New England Ave., across from Rollins College); to make up for the four hours that location was closed yesterday, Floridians can vote in Winter Park today between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. ET. If you are in line by 5 p.m., you can vote.

We encourage registered voters in these counties to cast their ballots today. With unprecedented turnout in South Florida, it is still our hope that the court will extend the early voting hours so that every eligible voter has a chance to vote.”

In addition, voters statewide can request and cast absentee ballots on Monday, according to the Miami-Herald, which notes that the five counties that reopened on Sunday are home to 1.6 million registered Democrats, or about a third of the state’s total.

Broward County, which raised alarms when vote totals from the first day of early voting were significantly revised, and where a backlog of absentee ballots has left thousands without their ballots, did not follow suit.

The Republican-dominated state legislature cut the early vote period down from 14 days in a bill signed in 2010 by Gov. Rick Scott. That forced African-American churches to reschedule “souls to the polls” for last weekend, which resulted in record turnout on the first two days of early voting. But today, on what would have been “souls to the polls,” elections offices are closed by law, statewide.

The decision, first made by Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope “Penny” Townsley, means that voters in the county have had that voting restored, at least for four hours. Townsley’s move was not in response to the lawsuit, but rather acted under her authority to accept absentee ballots on the Sunday before Election Day. Under her order, voters will be able to obtain an absentee ballot at the elections office, or turn in their absentee ballots, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., effectively restoring early voting. Voters can also pick up an absentee ballot, take it home to fill out, and return it to the elections office by 7 p.m. on Tuesday. The Miami-Dade Elections office issued the following directive on Sunday:

While state law does not permit Early Voting today, we are permitted to provide and accept absentee ballots. In honor of the Early Voting hours offered on the last Sunday in 2008, voters can go to the Elections Department in Doral to vote by absentee ballot from 1pm-5pm. Similar to the practice in Early Voting and on Election Day, any voter in line at 5pm will be allowed to vote.

Floridians have faced long lines, some as long as eight hours, to vote, and the wait times have been especially long in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, both Democratic strongholds, where large numbers of African-Americans are lining up to take advantage of the eight-day early voting period.

Scott had refused to issue an executive order as his predecessor, Republican governor, and now Independent (and Barack Obama supporter) Charlie Crist, did in 2008. Scott’s refusal prompted the Florida Democratic Party to file a federal lawsuit in the wee hours of Sunday morning, a day after voting stretched on well past 11 p.m. in some early voting locations. In Miami-Dade, the last voter finished casting their ballot at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. Under Florida law, anyone in line by the 7 p.m. poll closing time must be allowed to vote.

“Voting is a fundamental right, and we all have an interest in assuring that all Americans have effective opportunities to vote. Florida’s Republican state legislature has already reduced the number of days to early vote by six days. Because of Gov. Scott’s refusal to follow precedent and extend early voting hours in the face of unprecedented voter turnout in South Florida, we are requesting in federal court that more Floridians have a meaningful chance to early vote,” the Florida Democratic Party said in a statement released Sunday.

The Republican Party of Florida has said Democrats are complaining about early voting hours because “they are losing.” However, numbers released by the Florida Democratic Party indicate that Democrats have cast 42 percent of the early ballots as of Saturday, to Republicans’ 41 percent. And with more than 4 million absentee ballots cast, Democrats lead Republicans in early voting by 104,000 votes.