You are currently viewing Federal judge overturns parts of Florida election law, citing 'horrendous history' of racism – POLITICO

Federal judge overturns parts of Florida election law, citing 'horrendous history' of racism – POLITICO

Florida
The decision will likely be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a majority of judges were appointed by GOP presidents.
The ruling comes less than six months before the state’s first major election since the new law was passed by the Florida Legislature. | AP Photo/Steve Cannon
By Gary Fineout
03/31/2022 06:40 PM EDT
Updated: 03/31/2022 06:36 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge on Thursday struck down key provisions of a 2021 Florida election law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and, in a remarkable move, ruled the state must get court approval for the next 10 years before it enacts further changes in three areas.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in a blistering 288-page decision, said the law placed restrictions on voters that were unconstitutional and discriminated against minority citizens. Those included limits on drop boxes used for mail-in voting, on giving items to voters waiting in line and new requirements placed on voter registration groups.
The ruling comes less than six months before the state’s first major election since the new law was passed, with primaries scheduled for Aug. 23. It also comes amid a wave of restrictions put in place by Republicans in other states like Texas following the 2020 election.
Walker, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, framed Florida’s law as another in a long line of changes that were aimed at Democrats but wound up placing an illegal burden on minorities.
“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,” Walker wrote. “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. In summation, Florida has a horrendous history of racial discrimination in voting.”
DeSantis, who is running for reelection this year, vowed to quickly appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a majority of judges were appointed by GOP presidents.
“This is a judicial equivalent of just pounding the table,” DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday in West Palm Beach. He added that Walker did not have either the “facts” or the “law” on his side.
“I think it was performative partisanship,” he said.
Florida had a smooth election in 2020, with DeSantis even boasting that the state had shed its reputation as a laughingstock based on the 2000 presidential recount and other incidents. But amid former President Donald Trump’s false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged, DeSantis and legislators pushed through the changes.
Walker’s ruling followed a more than two-week trial and included thousands of pieces of evidence, including emails and text messages that showed a crackdown on mail-in ballot requests was seen as a way for the GOP to erase the edge that Democrats had in mail-in voting during the 2020 election.
The judge’s decision placed a permanent injunction on several parts of the new law, such as restrictions on when drop boxes could be used by local election officials. As part of the order, the judge also put in a preclearance requirement if legislators want to change laws regarding voter registration organizations, drop boxes or so called “line warming” activities with voters waiting to cast ballots at the polls.
There was immediate skepticism as to whether this rarely-used remedy under federal law will survive once it reaches a higher court.
Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, called the decision a “blockbuster” ruling on his Election Law blog but said in an interview that the judge’s finding that the Legislature intentionally discriminated could be overturned by a higher court. Even if appeals judges agree with Walker’s conclusion, he added, they still may not go along with a preclearance requirement.
“It’s a big imposition on Florida’s sovereignty to say it has to get federal approval,” Hasen said.
An appeals court could reject Walker’s main findings and send it back down for further consideration, he said.
Parts of the new law, however, will remain intact despite the lawsuit filed by an array of civil and voter rights groups, including the Florida NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Walker, for example, did not strike down a requirement that voters must offer additional identification — such as a driver’s license number — in order to get mail-in ballots. He said the groups suing did not produce enough evidence to suggest a disparate impact on voters. Walker had previously rejected a challenge to another part of the law that prevented someone from collecting more than two ballots from nonfamily members.
But Walker asserted that legislators knew about the potential impact of the changes on minority voters, ignored them and did not provide any true rationale for why they were being adopted. He even chided what he called the “racial tropes” used by Republican senators while defending the bill during contentious debate with Democrats. One senator, for example, suggested that if someone could not vote after the changes then they were “lazy.”
Legislative leaders reacted sharply to the tone of Walker’s ruling, with Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) calling the judge’s comments on senators “appalling” and his ruling “unprofessional, inaccurate and unbecoming of an officer of the court.” House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) called the decision “illogical” and “unsupported” and said the preclearance requirement was “an egregious abuse of his power.”
Democrats and the groups that challenged the law hailed Walker’s decision and said it confirmed their position that the law violated Black voting rights.
“Governor DeSantis may wish to run our state otherwise, but in Florida, we still believe every vote should be counted and every voice heard,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, one of the groups that challenged the law. “No matter how many barriers Governor DeSantis tries to throw in the way of Black and Latino voters having our voices heard and vote counted, we will knock them down.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz, in a statement, said the ruling confirmed what the Party had been saying for at least a year.
“Instead of governing, Ron DeSantis and Republicans in the Legislature spent two years passing unconstitutional and discriminatory laws that were destined to be struck down by the courts,” he said.
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