According to newly-released research, Florida’s controversial new elections law affected early voting turnout in this year’s presidential primary, despite claims from proponents of the bill that it would not negatively affect the accessibility of early voting.

The research released by Daniel Smith, an elections expert, and professor at the University of Florida, found that those counties that didn’t implement the elections law had a greater percentage of early voter turnout than the counties that had the new law in place.

Five Florida counties are currently protected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that any new laws affecting voting rights in the state must be approved by the federal government before being implemented. (The state has filed a challenge to this law, claiming that it is unconstitutional.)

Last year, state lawmakers passed a controversial overhaul of elections law in the state. House Bill 1355 placed onerous restrictions on third-party voter registration, created a shortened “shelf life” for signatures collected for ballot initiatives, placed new restrictions on voters changing their registered addresses on election day, and reduced the number of early voting days.

Supporters of the bill claimed it would help prevent voter fraud in the state. Civil rights groups, third-party voter registration groups, and many others, however, claimed the bill was a partisan and concerted effort to keep minorities, students, and low-income voters from the polls in 2012. Lawsuits aimed at halting the bill’s implementation have cropped up across the state.

Those pushing for the law also claimed that the bill would not change early voting as drastically as critics said it would. Sponsors said the bill only cuts the number of early voting days, but not the total hours people will have for early voting. The bill has extended some early voting days to as long as 12 hours.

Smith, who has testified about the new bill’s impact before the U.S. Congress, released new research he conducted revealing that these claims might not prove accurate.

In his elections blog, Smith writes that during this past presidential primary, “early in-person voting in the five counties with the extended voting window accounted for a greater percentage of the total turnout in the Presidential Preference Primary, on average, compared with turnout in the other 62 counties.”

He writes:

Under HB1355, Florida’s controversial voter suppression law, the state legislature eliminated the final Sunday of early voting that was previously permitted.  But five of Florida’s counties are covered by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the state has yet to receive US Justice Department preclearance to enforce the law in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe counties. As such, early in-person voting in these five Florida countiesbegan on Monday, January 16, giving voters five additional days to cast their ballots. (Although they have done so, and despite the incorrectinformation posted of the Secretary of State’s website, none of the five counties opted to offer early voting on either Sunday, January 22 or January 29.)

What the figure below reveals is that, on average, early in-person turnout in the Republican primary was higher in the five Section 5 counties than early in-person turnout in the other 62 counties. More precisely, a greater percentage of registered Republicans opted to vote early in-person in the five Section 5 counties than registered Republicans in neighboring counties. Some 11.8 percent of registered Republicans voted early in the five VRA Section 5 counties, compared to 9.3 percent of registered Republicans in the other 62 counties.  More significantly, early in-person voting in the five counties with the extended voting window accounted for a greater percentage of the total turnout in the Presidential Preference Primary, on average, compared with turnout in the other 62 counties.  Nearly one in three votes cast in the GOP primary election in the five Section 5 counties were ballots cast early in-person by voters, compared to less than 22 percent of all ballots cast in the other 62 counties.

Smith notes that “these significant differences occurred in the GOP primary,” and that the legislation would likely prove even more impactful during a Democratic primary.

“In Florida,” he writes, “Republicans are considerably less likely to cast votes early in-person than Democrats or those registered as No Party Affiliate or with a 3rd Party, as the figure below demonstrates from the 2008 general election.”

“What these figures show, is that early in-person voting–even among Republican voters–was considerably lower under HB1355 than under the old law with more days of early voting,” he concludes. “The effects would likely have been magnified if it were a Democratic primary, and will likely be considerably greater in the 2012 general election if the truncating of early voting under HB1355 is upheld.”

This past January in Tampa, Smith testified during a U.S. Senate hearing that Florida is witnessing a decrease in voter registration numbers due to the restrictions placed on third-party voter registration.

Democratic state lawmakers have introduced legislation this year aimed at reversing the reduction in early voting days in the state for the upcoming Presidential election.

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