Judge strikes FL limits on access to voting; sees ‘cynical effort to suppress turnout’

Bars enforcement of restrictions on ballot drop boxes, ‘line warming’

By: - March 31, 2022 3:01 pm

Ballot drop box in Florida’s state capital. Credit: leonvotes.gov

A federal judge has stricken key voting restrictions that the Florida Legislature passed last year as unconstitutional, concluding that they make voting more difficult for everybody but “intentionally target” minorities and “unduly” burden disabled voters.

In a 288-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee barred the state and county supervisors of elections from enforcing:

  • Language requiring third-party voter-registration groups to warn prospective voters that the groups might not turn in their registration forms in time.
  • A requirement that such groups deliver registration forms to the state Division of Election or the voter’s county of residence, rather than in the county where the forms were gathered.
  • A ban on ‘line warming,” or supplying food and water to people waiting in line to vote.
  • Limits on use of “drop boxes” where voters can deposit vote-by-mail ballots rather than entrust them to the U.S. Postal Service.

Furthermore, Walker ordered the state to clear any future changes in voting laws during the next 10 years with him. That’s allowed under Section 3 c of the Voting Rights Act.

He said Florida’s history of devising voting laws to disadvantage minorities justified that last requirement.

“In Florida, white Floridians outpace Black Floridians in almost every socioeconomic metric. In Florida, since the end of the Civil War, politicians have attacked the political rights of Black citizens. In Florida, though we have come far, the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go,” Walker wrote.

“For the past 20 years, the majority in the Florida Legislature has attacked the voting rights of its Black constituents. They have done so not as, in the words of Dr. King, ‘vicious racists, with [the] governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,’ but as part of a cynical effort to suppress turnout among their opponents’ supporters. That, the law does not permit.”

Attorneys representing the state had argued that the law in question, SB 90, imposed only “minor prophylactic changes to the election code,” Walker noted.

“Plaintiffs, on the other hand, allege that SB 90 runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters, and intentionally targeting minority voters — all to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power,” he continued.

“This court has received thousands of pages of evidence — plus thousands more pages of briefing — and has heard two weeks’ worth of testimony from 42 witnesses, ranging from state senators to statisticians.

“Having reviewed all the evidence, this court finds that, for the most part, plaintiffs are right.”

Walker upheld provisions requiring voters to request vote-by-mail ballots every two years, instead of the four allowed in the past, and requiring additional forms of ID, citing failure by the law’s challengers to establish any intent to discriminate against Blacks specifically, rather than merely Democrats who might happen to be Black.

As for the provisions he did strike, Walker wrote:

“If the Legislature had targeted Democrats writ large, it would have simply banned drop boxes, as some of SB 90’s earlier versions proposed to do. But that is not what the Legislature did; SB 90 effectively bans drop-box use at the specific times and the specific days that Black voters, not all Democratic voters, are most likely to use them. The same is true for the solicitation definition and the registration return provision. White Democrats do not wait in long lines, nor do they use [thire-party registration groups] to register. These provisions are not aimed at Democrats as a whole.”

Furthermore, the state offered no alternative explanation for those choices that would satisfy the Voting Rights Act, Walker continued.

“This court finds, upon reviewing all the evidence set out above, that the Legislature would not have passed the drop-box provisions, the solicitation definition, or the registration return provision absent an intent to discriminate against Black voters. Accordingly, these provisions violate the VRA, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Fifteenth Amendment. Defendants are therefore enjoined from enforcing them,” he wrote.

DeSantis, during a press conference in West Palm Beach, denounced the ruling as “performative partisanship.”

“It was not unforeseen, because we typically set our clocks to getting a partisan outcome in that court. I would not want to be on the receiving end of that appeal if I were a judge, because I think that’s going to be reversed on appeal. The only question is how quickly it gets reversed on appeal,” the governor said.

Walker did note in his ruling that he has deferred to the state in voting cases before. “All told, I have heard 17 cases related to voting in Florida. I ruled against Florida in six of those 17 cases,” he noted.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls also criticized the ruling.

“The illogical leaps and unsupported inferences in Judge Walker’s opinion amount to a 288-page accusation of discriminatory intent based on limited analysis of data he thinks the Legislature might have had, the uncritical and complete acceptance of the comments of Democratic lawmakers, and a total disregard for other viewpoints,” Sprowls said.

“His alleged pattern of discrimination over time amounts to a conspiracy theory that overlooks the reality of term limits, and his insertion of federal preclearance over Florida’s election laws is an egregious abuse of his power.”

Walker pointed to Florida’s history of attempting to suppress black voters, including unfair voting roll purges.

“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern,” he wrote.

“At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental. Based on the indisputable pattern set out above, this court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”

Voting-rights groups, however, hailed the decision in written statements.

“Judge Walker’s decision excoriated the discriminatory effects of numerous laws over the past 20 years as evidence of the discriminatory intent of SB 90. For the next 10 years, legislative attacks on voting rights will require pre-clearance from the court to make sure they are not unconstitutional and discriminatory. Today is a victory for the people of Florida and it will take all of us getting more involved to protect our rights and our democracy in this state.” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising.

“With the court’s decision today, we see one of the most restrictive voting rights laws in the country being struck down. This is a huge victory for the state of Florida. For too long, this law peeled back the progress that voting rights groups have made by targeting the very tools minority communities, like ours, use to increase voter turnout,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Equal Ground Education Fund.

“This decision recognized that SB 90 is the latest stain in a long history of voting laws which restrict Black political participation,” said Amia Trigg, legal counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“As Judge Walker acknowledged, this is part of a larger assault on voting rights that continues across the country. We’re seeing the right to vote being targeted at every level of government. Therefore, it is crucial that we continue this fight. Every voice deserves to be heard in our democracy, and state officials must ensure that by making elections fair and accessible — not by creating unnecessary obstacles to the ballot box. This ruling is extremely encouraging for those of us on the frontlines.”

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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