State, groups battle over elections ruling
Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox, left, looks on as an Election worker counts ballots on Election Night at the Marion County Election Center in Ocala on Nov. 3, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.
After a federal judge blocked parts of a 2021 elections law that he said discriminated against Black voters, the state and opponents of the law are battling about whether the ruling should be put on hold while an appeals court considers the case.
Attorneys for the state, county supervisors of elections and national Republican organizations asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month to place a stay on the March 31 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
“Because statewide elections are fast approaching, appellants (the state, supervisors and GOP organizations) respectfully ask this court to rule as soon as possible,” the attorneys wrote in an April 11 motion.
But attorneys for groups such as the Florida State Conference of Branches and Youth Units of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida fired back last week, contending that Walker’s ruling against the law (SB 90) should remain in effect.
“In sum, appellants fail to show that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their appeal of the district court’s finding that SB 90 was passed with discriminatory intent,” a brief filed by the NAACP and Florida Rising Together said. “The district court’s factual findings were supported by ample record evidence, and appellants have not, and cannot, demonstrate that these findings were clearly erroneous.”
The Atlanta-based appeals court’s decision about whether to grant a stay could affect rules for this year’s elections. It could be months before the court decides the underlying issues in the appeal, and the state’s primary elections will be held Aug. 23.
Numerous groups filed legal challenges last year to the law, which included placing restrictions on the use of “drop boxes” for submitting vote-by-mail ballots; putting additional regulations on voter-registration organizations; and preventing organizations from providing items such as food and water to voters waiting in line at polling places.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers contended that the changes were needed, at least in part, to help prevent election fraud — a high-profile issue for the GOP nationally after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.
But opponents argued that the changes were designed to suppress the votes of Black Floridians, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. After holding a trial early this year, Walker issued a 288-page decision that blocked parts of the law.
“In sum, this court concludes that to the extent promoting voter confidence or preventing fraud may have motivated the Legislature in part, this court finds that the Legislature passed SB 90 with the intent to restructure Florida’s election system in ways that favor the Republican Party over the Democratic Party,” Walker wrote. “This court further finds that, to advance the Legislature’s main goal of favoring Republicans over Democrats, the Legislature enacted some of SB 90’s provisions with the intent to target Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”
Attorneys for the state, county supervisors and Republican organizations quickly appealed, with a key issue centered on part of Walker’s ruling that requires “preclearance” before Florida can make certain types of changes in the elections system. That requirement would lead to a judge having to sign off on such changes for 10 years, according to court documents.
In their motion this month for a stay of Walker’s ruling, the attorneys took aim at the preclearance requirement, saying “Florida’s elections are now dictated by a single judge in Tallahassee.”
“Far from a ‘rarely used’ remedy for the most ‘systematic and deliberate’ cases of discrimination, the district court’s reasoning would make preclearance the norm in voting-rights cases,” the motion said, partially quoting from a legal precedent. “That the court reached for this blunderbuss remedy — effectively putting Florida in a decade-long federal receivership — is reason enough to stay its order.”
But attorneys for the NAACP and Florida Rising Together wrote last week that the preclearance requirement is a “narrowly tailored, appropriate response to the constitutional violations” in the case.
DeSantis on Monday signed a law (SB 524) that was passed during this year’s legislative session to make additional changes to the elections system.
As an indication of the potential ramifications of the preclearance requirement, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Fair Elections Center, which represent the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters in the legal fight about the 2021 law, said the requirement should apply to the new law.
“The decision in our case makes clear that the state must seek federal approval before implementing any law or policy that impacts third-party voter registration organizations, drop boxes, or helping people in voting lines because of Florida’s history of racial discrimination in voting.” Caren Short, senior supervising attorney for voting rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “This law clearly falls under this requirement, and we call on the state to seek federal preclearance, or better yet, cease its latest attempt to create barriers to voting.”