TALLAHASSEE — Florida voters will likely be limited to no more than eight days of early voting during this year's crucial presidential election.
The Obama administration formally signed off on a proposal late Wednesday that will limit early voting days in five Florida counties covered by the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department decision ends a lengthy battle over a controversial election law passed by the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature last year, although a separate lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown against the early voting changes is still pending in a Jacksonville federal court.
"We think this is a tremendous victory for Florida voters," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
Battles over early voting have been a flashpoint across the nation this year, especially in swing states that could determine the outcome of the presidential election.
Florida legislators in 2011 kept the same number of hours available for early voting but cut the number of days from a maximum of 14 days to eight days. They also eliminated early voting on the Sunday right before Election Day. Many black churches had been organizing "souls to the polls" drives where they would encourage people to vote right after church services.
But those changes did not take effect in five counties — Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe — where any changes in election laws must be approved by the Justice Department or federal court because of past racial discrimination.
A federal court in Washington, D.C., refused initially to approve the state's move to cut back on early voting days, saying it could discourage minority voting, especially among black voters. The court said that evidence presented in the case clearly showed that black voters utilized early voting much more than white voters, especially in the 2008 election, when President Barack Obama carried Florida.
The judges, however, said that they might change their mind if the five counties agreed to a schedule of 12 hours of early voting over eight days. Four of the five election supervisors — except Monroe County Supervisor Harry Sawyer — said they could support that change. Sawyer said he still thought that the change would discourage minority voting.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the outcome disappointing and said it could result in fewer minorities voting in this year's election.
"This was always about more voting days, not more voting hours," Simon said. "We wouldn't have had this bad result for voters and especially minority voters if one other supervisor stood shoulder to shoulder with the courageous Harry Sawyer."
The early voting reduction is one of several changes made to Florida's election law by the Legislature that drew opposition from Democrats and other critics who contended they were designed to suppress voting by minorities and young people. Both groups tend to vote Democratic.
GOP sponsors argued the changes were aimed at curtailing voting fraud. Similar legal battles are playing out in other states after Republican-controlled legislatures moved to limit early voting or passed voter ID laws.
A federal judge in Tallahassee has blocked another provision that put new requirements on voter-registration drives, including a 48-hour deadline for turning applications in to election officials. That ruling, which affects all 67 Florida counties, restored a 10-day deadline in the old law.
The early voting change is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by Brown, who contends the changes are discriminatory. A hearing in that case is scheduled for next week.