* Would cut back early voting hours, ban Sunday balloting
* Critics say reduced hours would hurt blacks
* Changes on hold before ruling, expected before Nov. 6
By Drew Singer
WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - New rules in Florida that cut back on early voting hours unfairly burden the state's minorities, U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued on Thursday.
A three-judge District Court panel in Washington, D.C., heard nearly six hours of arguments from the Justice Department and Florida, which last year passed a series of measures its attorneys say will stave off voter fraud.
The changes would require people who moved counties to file provisional ballots, allow counties to adjust voter precinct hours and reduce the number of early voting days.
During the 2008 election, about 55 percent of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period that would be reduced under the law, according to data from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The federal government said the new rules violated Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring certain states with a history of discrimination to obtain federal approval before making changes to electoral rules.
Section 5 also requires courts to review the law for retrogression, anything that would leave minority groups worse off than they were before the law's enactment.
Defending Florida, attorney William Consovoy argued there was no evidence that a reduction in early voting reduced overall voter turnout.
He argued that the law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Rick Scott, aimed to fight voter fraud. None of the rules were directed at members of any minority or political party, he said.
Critics say such efforts aim to lower the participation of minorities because they historically vote Democratic.
REDUCED HOURS, SUNDAY CLOSINGS
Under the new rules, counties may reduce the hours their respective voting precincts are open for early voting from 96 hours per week to as few as 48.
The rules also require that precincts be closed on the Sunday before Election Day, a day when black churches in Florida transport members from services straight to voting booths through the "Get Your Souls to the Polls" program.
In all, the rules reduce the number of early voting days from 12 to eight.
"Those days do make a difference," Justice Department attorney Elise Shore told the court. "Retrogression is whether it puts the minority group in a worse position."
Although the law has passed in Florida, it will not take effect without preclearance from the court. The three judges will decide whether the new rules create a significantly greater burden on minority voters than the old rules did.
Lawyers expect a ruling in the case, Florida vs. U.S. et al., before the Nov. 6 election.
Florida has been hit with other lawsuits over its voting rules, including one from the Department of Justice, that challenge the state's bid to purge non-citizens from the state's voter rolls.
The suits accuse Florida of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because a disproportionate number of those targeted, as part of efforts to cull non-citizens from the voter rolls, are Hispanics.
Scott and other officials have defended the voter purge effort, saying it was aimed at protecting the integrity of the voter rolls and involved just a fraction of Florida's more than 11 million voters. (Reporting by Drew Singer; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Walsh)
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