TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last Sunday before Election Day is the same every time for Jerry West. He closes his Jacksonville, Fla., music shop selling eight-track tapes and vinyl records, casts his ballot early and drives 20 or so shut-ins to the polls.
"They tell me all the time if it wasn't for me they couldn't have voted," West, 63, said of the elderly voters. "I don't know what they'll do now."
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This year, early voting in the country's biggest swing state will end sooner under a new election law that Democrats have sued to block, claiming it's likely to hurt minority-voter turnout.
Florida is among four key states where restrictions on voter eligibility, approved by Republican-controlled legislatures, threaten President Obama's re-election prospects in a race against Republican Mitt Romney that opinion polls suggest will be close. The Justice Department, as well as civil liberties and voter advocacy groups, have sued to throw out many of these rules.
"There have been more changes in the last four years than other four-year presidential cycles," said David Becker, director of election initiatives for the Washington-based Pew Center on the States. "That creates challenges for voters, who have to know what the laws are."
The Obama campaign sued over Ohio's early voting law, claiming it violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. In Pennsylvania, new photo-ID rules burden the poor and elderly, according to a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. Wisconsin is appealing state court rulings that blocked new voter-ID laws opponents said would unfairly burden minority voters.
The Justice Department is investigating the Pennsylvania law and joined a lawsuit in Florida over the way the state removed noncitizens from its voting rolls. The department, exercising its powers under voting rights law, has also blocked voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, states where Republicans have won every presidential race since 1980.
The president's campaign, which focused on voter registration four years ago and claimed early voting was instrumental in his victory in Florida, slowed its registration efforts in the Sunshine State this time until lawyers could decipher new restrictions signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Now, volunteers are put through a full day of training about the law and must pass a quiz about the regulations before signing up new voters.
A new Democratic website, GottaVote.com, was designed to outline registration and Election Day requirements for voters in each state.
The new laws were passed after Republicans in 2010 gained majorities in 11 state legislatures, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Heading into the 2012 elections, Republicans control the legislature and governor's office in 20 states, while Democrats control 11. The two parties share power in 19 states.
Patrick Gaspard, director of the Democratic National Committee and Obama's former political director, said new laws in Republican-controlled states were designed to "suppress and block" Democrats from voting.
"Instead of producing jobs, they'd rather keep young people from voting," Gaspard said on Bloomberg Television. "They'd rather keep senior citizens from voting."
Republicans say the changes are aimed at stopping election fraud and trimming costs by reducing the number of days polling places will be open for early voting.
"I've never had any conversations with anybody about voter suppression," said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "It's a pretty high charge and it's offensive."
Florida politicians often note the crucial role the state plays in presidential elections. The state has 29 electoral votes and an electorate that is almost evenly split in presidential elections. Since 2000, Republicans have captured 10.9 million votes, Democrats 10.8 million.
During that same time, the state has earned a reputation for manipulating election laws, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
"Florida is the poster child for politicized election administration," Weiser said. "The debacle in Florida in 2000 is part of what gave birth to this movement of tinkering with the rules before major elections," she said, referring to the recount of the results in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, ultimately decided in Bush's favor by the U.S. Supreme Court. "It taught the nation that the rules can make a difference in outcomes."
This year, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle struck down parts of a new Florida statute that reduced the time limit for groups registering voters to turn in forms before they face increased fines. The provision highlighted the plight of Jill Cicciarelli, a high school teacher in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who faced thousands of dollars in fines after helping about 50 students fill out forms and then turned them in after the deadline.
Groups signing up voters must still register with the state and mark each form they collect with a state-provided identification number under the remaining provisions of the law.
The state is also defending against a lawsuit that the Justice Department joined over the way Secretary of State Ken Detzner purges noncitizens from the registration rolls.
In addition, it's fighting a federal citizens' lawsuit filed July 27 that seeks to undo a cut in the number of early voting days.
Black voters disproportionately rely on early voting, the plaintiffs claim. More than half of black voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2008, according to state data. The suit was filed by local voters, including West, Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown and the Jacksonville chapter of Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The law cuts the number of days to cast early ballots to eight from 14 while keeping the total hours for early voting at 96. The final Sunday of early voting was eliminated.
"People have a right to make their decision at the last minute," said R.L. Gundy, a Baptist pastor and president of the South Christian Leadership Conference's state chapter.
Republican state Rep. Dennis Baxley who sponsored the election law, disputed that the changes would give Republicans an advantage.
"Are they saying that certain people don't know how to participate and you have to treat them in some different way? That's a racist implication in and of itself," Baxley said. "Our law is the same for everyone."
Steve Schale, who directed Obama's 2008 campaign in Florida, has said Obama won the Sunshine State before Election Day thanks to a record 4.4 million voters who cast their ballots at early voting sites or through the mail that year. It was the first time in Florida that Election Day accounted for less than half of total turnout.
The campaign also helped register thousands of new voters. Almost 579,000 voters cast ballots in Florida for the first time in 2008, almost all of whom were Hispanic or black, according to U.S. Census data. Turnout among voters younger than 25 increased from 39 percent in 2004 to 49 percent in 2008.
As of June 30, there were 11.4 million registered voters in Florida, or 0.1 percent less than the 2008 rolls, according to state data. In each of the past three presidential elections in Florida, by contrast, the number of registered voters grew by at least 9 percent and as much as 18 percent from four years earlier.
Some groups, including the Florida League of Women Voters, suspended registration drives for a year after the new law was passed. The League resumed its registration drive in June after Judge Hinkle's decision.
"We just don't know how far behind we are," said Deirdre MacNab, Florida League of Women Voters president.