TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Election officials announced an agreement on Thursday on early voting procedures in five Florida counties, as they moved to end a series of conflicts over balloting ahead of the November 6 election in the crucial swing state.
The announcement came a day after voting groups dropped their legal challenge to a state purge of voter lists after Florida elections officials said they had greatly reduced the number of potentially ineligible voters.
Taken together, the agreements mark the end of legal challenges pitting Republican-led efforts in Florida to shore up voting rolls and tweak election laws in preparation for what is expected to be a close presidential race in the battleground state.
Last year, Florida lawmakers reduced the number of early voting days, a move the U.S. Department of Justice said violated federal voting rights standards. In an agreement penned late on Wednesday, state officials agreed to expand the hours the polls were open during those days, a change federal officials found acceptable.
The agreement with federal officials came hours after Florida officials said they had used a Department of Homeland Security database to cross check an earlier list of 2,600 potentially ineligible voters that proved to be inaccurate. The new list contains 207 names.
Voter rights groups, which had filed suit in federal court to stop the earlier purge, said the agreement would help prevent the targeting of minorities, who disproportionately turned up on earlier lists of questionable voters.
“This settlement represents a historic milestone for voting rights in Florida,” said Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis, a plaintiff in the case. “It will ensure that naturalized citizens, the majority of whom are Latino, black and Asian, have the same opportunities as all Americans to participate in our political process.”
Under the agreement, voters who were removed earlier but cannot be confirmed as non-citizens will be reinstated. Voters who were incorrectly removed from the rolls will receive letters telling them they are indeed eligible to vote.
Also, voters whose names incorrectly turned up on earlier lists would not be required to vote by provisional ballot.
“We want every Florida voter to be confident that their vote is protected and not hurt in any way by the illegal activity of others,” Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement. “We know that every vote counts, especially here in Florida where only 537 votes decided the presidential election in 2000.”
On Thursday, Detzner announced the end of another election year challenge, this one with the Justice Department, which agreed to sign off on the last of 80 election rule changes for the upcoming 2012 election.
The final items involved early voting hours that were changed in 2011. The ruling affects five Florida counties that must have election changes approved by federal officials before they can take effect.
State lawmakers reduced the number of earlier voting days from up to 14 days to eight, a reduction that federal officials strongly suggested could not be done unless the hours of voting were lengthened.
“The approval of these changes is a tremendous victory for Florida voters,” Detzner said in a statement. “In the areas of the state already able to implement the changes, we have seen how the changes offer more flexibility to vote, more accountability and faster reporting times on Election Day.”
Editing by David Adams and Leslie Gevirtz