* 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)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

Here are some extreme voting laws:
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  • Florida Eliminates Early Voting On Sundays

    Tensions run high in Florida, a critical battleground state that passed an election law last year with several contested provisions. One bans a decade-long practice of early voting on Sundays before the election -- a window when as <a href="http://www.postonpolitics.com/2012/03/black-dems-trying-to-change-sunday-pre-election-voting-restriction/" target="_hplink">many as 30 percent</a> of black voters have previously cast ballots after attending church in a "souls to the polls" movement. Republican lawmakers claim the provision is meant to reduce election fraud, but some black Democrats say the calculation is more sinister. "It's my feeling it was done deliberately, a premeditated design, to suppress the vote of African-Americans in this country because it's playing out all over the nation in every state. It was intentional," Florida Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) said.

  • Photo ID Firestorm Rocks South Carolina

    The Justice Department <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/23/south-carolina-voter-id-law_n_1168162.html" target="_hplink">dealt a blow </a>to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, arguing that it discriminated along racial lines. Haley's administration fired back <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/07/south-carolina-voter-id-law-lawsuit-justice-department_n_1260369.html" target="_hplink">with a lawsuit</a> that is expected to be decided in September. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said earlier this year that Republicans hope to tip the outcome of the presidential election by lowering voter turnout by 1 percent in each of nine states that have passed voter ID laws, the <a href="http://westashley.patch.com/articles/democrats-combat-voter-id-law-by-organizing#video-9786253" target="_hplink">West Ashley Patch reports</a>. "I know nothing has changed yet," he said. "But I just do not trust the judiciary that we're operating under."

  • Disenfranchised Grandmother Sues Pennsylvania

    Under Pennsylvania's new voter ID law, voters must show a photo ID issued by the state or federal government. The state-issued IDs are free, but getting one requires a birth certificate, which costs $10 in Pennsylvania. Not everyone is having an easy time navigating the new system. Earlier this month, Viviette Applewhite, 93, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/pennsylvania-voter-id-law-viviette-applewhite_n_1472192.html" target="_hplink">filed a lawsuit </a>with the ACLU and NAACP challenging the law. Applewhite, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, does not have a driver's license, and the state cannot find her birth certificate. She is afraid that this year will be the first since 1960 that she will be unable to vote. Applewhite's dilemma is not uncommon. Some <a href="http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/montco_memo/142671935.html" target="_hplink">700,000 Pennsylvanians</a> lack photo ID and half of them are seniors. According to <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">the Brennan Center</a>, 25 percent of voting-age black citizens have no government-issued photo ID, compared to 8 percent of white citizens.

  • Kansas Moves To Accelerate Proof Of Citizenship Law

    The Kansas House <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">voted earlier this year</a> to move up the date a proof of citizenship law goes into effect to June 15, 2012, so it will limit who can vote in the presidential election. HuffPost's John Celock <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>: <blockquote>Rep. Ann Mah (D-Topeka) said the entire idea of proof of citizenship to vote would fail in court due to it being discriminatory against married women who change their names. Mah said that women who change their name need to provide proof of marriage and citizenship and an affidavit regarding the name change.<br> Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) took issue with Mah's claims of court challenges. "I get frustrated that everyone who does not like policy says we'll end up in court," he said.</blockquote> Only 48 percent of voting-age women with access to their birth certificates have a birth certificate with a current legal name, which means that as many as 32 million American women do not have proof of citizenship with their current legal name, <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">according to the Brennan Center</a>. The bill to change the start date <a href="http://salinapost.com/2012/05/10/kobach-concedes-kansas-voter-citizenship-plan-dead/" target="_hplink">eventually failed</a>, but will still go into effect next year.

  • Wisconsin Law Continues To Disenfranchise Voters After Suspension

    Last year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/25/wisconsin-voter-id-law-scott-walker_n_867090.html" target="_hplink">signed a voter ID bill into law</a>, calling it a "common sense reform" that would "go a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin." As Walker's June 5 recall election approached, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">two judges suspended it on the basis that it is unconstitutional</a>. Still, poll workers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">reportedly asked some voters to show photo ID</a> during Wisconsin's April 2 primary, and one woman said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">she and her 87-year-old mother were turned away at the polls </a>because they lacked current photo IDs -- even though they were registered to vote. "We were listed on their friggin' poll list and yet we had our names highlighted," the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">told the <em>Milwaukee Journal Sentinel</em></a>.