Judge blasts state but won’t extend voter registration to make up for systems crash, citing fears of additional ‘chaos’

By: - October 9, 2020 8:53 am

Polling places in Leon County ahead of the 2020 primaries. Credit: Issac Morgan

A federal judge has refused to extend voting registration in Florida following a crash that rendered the state’s online voter registration system inaccessible as the deadline neared this week, citing fear that doing so would inject fresh confusion into the Nov. 3 general election.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee agreed in a ruling issued early Friday that the crash had violated the First and Fourteenth amendment rights of voting-rights organizations by frustrating their efforts to recruit new voters.

Still, he concluded that extending registration would cause confusion and delays on election day and so denied an injunction that would force the state to reopen its voter books.

“This is an incredibly close call, but Florida’s interest in preventing chaos in its already precarious — and perennially chaotic — election outweighs the substantial burden imposed on the right to vote,” Walker wrote.

That didn’t prevent him from voicing frustration with state officials.

“[T]his court notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science,” he wrote.

“In the end, this case is not about Floridians missing registration deadlines. This case is also not a challenge to a state statute. This case is about how a state failed its citizens,” Walker also wrote.

“In this case, potential voters attempted to perform their civic duty, to exercise their fundamental right, only to be thwarted, once again, by a state that seemingly is never prepared for an election. This case is about failure on the part of a civil servant, whose responsibility is to run an election system, that will cost thousands of potential voters their fundamental right to vote in the upcoming election.”

The ruling came down a little more than three weeks before an historic general election in a swing state that tends to run squeaker elections for statewide office. For example, the 2018 governor’s race was decided by 32,463 votes out of more than 8.2 million cast.

The online voting registration system crashed for about seven hours on Monday, with the “book closing” set for 11:59 p.m. that night, as more than 1 million people were attempting to use it, according to Lee. She ordered the system reopened between noon and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The Advancement Project, Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition filed suit against Lee and Gov. Ron DeSantis, arguing the crash disrupted their last-day efforts to register voters for the Nov. 3 general election. They sought a two-day extension.

The plaintiffs, who’d complained Lee’d left the system vulnerable to the overload, were “incredibly disappointed” by the outcome, they said in a written statement

“Sadly, this is another episode in Florida’s long history of voter suppression. From its efforts to thwart the will of Floridians in overturning racist felony disenfranchisement laws this year, to its failure to adequately update and address technical issues of its online voter registration system, one thing is clear: The state of Florida has consistently failed Florida voters,” they said.

“The state’s failure to provide a meaningful extension of the voter registration deadline disproportionately harms Black and brown communities and Florida’s poor who are more heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and less likely to have received the midday notification of the registration deadline extension on Tuesday. Moving forward, we will continue our commitment to ensure that all voters who were able to register will be protected during all voting periods.”

All Voting Is Local, an organization comprising The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Constitution Society, Campaign Legal Center, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also decried the result.

“This ruling is a setback for countless Floridians who expected their state to maintain a functioning voter registration website,” the group’s Florida state director, Brad Ashwell, said in a written statement.

“Gov. DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee knew the website’s tendency to crash posed a danger to democracy, yet they did nothing. They had years of warnings but chose not to act — their dereliction of duty is beyond inappropriate and inexcusable,” he continued.

“We hope our elected officials learn from this dysfunction and adequately prepare for the scores of voters who intend to vote by mail and in-person during the upcoming general election.”

As he’d signaled during oral arguments on Thursday, Walker ruled that DeSantis was not a proper party to the suit because he didn’t directly oversee the system.

DeSantis said Friday that he believe the state’s response was adequate.

“I really didn’t see there being much of a federal issue at this point so I was not surprised by the ruling and believe we handled it appropriately,” he said.

Walker estimated the interruption resulted in some 20,000 people being unable to register.

“These potential voters include a public-school teacher, a past felon who jumped through hoops to be eligible to vote, a survivor of domestic violence, and countless others,” Walker wrote.

“To these potential voters, the state’s answer for its own failures can only be characterized as ‘so sad, too bad,’” he added.

“The state could have extended the registration deadline until midnight on [Tuesday], which would have given these potential voters a fighting chance. Instead, the state chose to notify the public during a normal workday and gave them only seven hours to somehow become apprised of their rights and register, all while also participating in their normal workday, school, family, and caregiving responsibilities.”

But he concluded: “One would expect the state to make it easier for its citizens to vote. Unfortunately for these potential voters, this court cannot remedy what the state broke under these circumstances. This court must consider the consequences of extending voter registration deadline. Having done so, the motion for preliminary injunction is denied.”

Update: This story has been amended to include the governor’s reaction.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.