A federal judge ordered a one-day extension in Florida’s voter registration deadline and seemed ready to consider a longer delay against the backdrops of the recovery from Hurricane Matthew and one of the most heated presidential races in decades.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the state should continue accepting voter registration papers through 5 p.m. Wednesday. He also set up a Wednesday morning hearing to consider a request by the Florida Democratic Party to keep registration open until Oct. 18 — a week after the initial deadline was set to pass.
The Flagler County Elections Office will be open for extended hours today and tomorrow, October 11 and 12, to accept voter registration applications. Hours on Tuesday and Wednesday will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s only a half-hour extension at either end of the day, however, a relatively stingy extension compared with St. Johns County, which opened on Saturday and is staying open today until 7 p.m., as it did on Monday.
To ensure every Flagler County citizen has the opportunity to register to vote, Florida Voter Registration Applications are now available outside the Elections Office for voters who may visit the office after hours on Tuesday. The application is always available online and voters may also use the drop box after hours at the entrance of the Elections Office to return the application.
“It has been suggested that the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics. Poppycock,” Walker wrote in a 16-page ruling. “This case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted. Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy.”
Still, politics swirled around the case less than a month before Florida could play a decisive role in the presidential race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Republican Donald Trump. The lawsuit was filed by the Florida Democratic Party after Gov. Rick Scott, who heads a super PAC supporting Trump, said he would not extend the registration deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Matthew lashed the state’s eastern coast and Flagler County late last week, prompting tens of thousands of Floridians to evacuate. Local, state and federal officials urged residents to flee, arguing that staying behind could prove fatal. At least half a dozen deaths in Florida have been attributed to the storm and its aftermath, though none in Flagler.
Throughout his order, Walker indicated he was sympathetic to voters affected by the storm.
“These voters have already had their lives (and, quite possibly, their homes) turned up-side down by Hurricane Matthew,” he wrote. “They deserve a break, especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution.”
Walker is a 1989 graduate of the University of Florida and 1992 graduate of the law school there. A former assistant public defender and circuit judge, he was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2012.
In the initial lawsuit, filed late Sunday, lawyers for the Democratic Party argued it was unfair for Scott to warn residents to follow evacuation orders ahead of the storm while at the same time refusing to give people more time to register after the storm displaced them and forced government offices to close. “On Thursday, October 6,” the complaint read, Scott “unambiguously ordered Florida citizens to ‘evacuate, evacuate, evacuate’ the areas in Hurricane Matthew’s path. ‘There are no excuses. You need to leave,’ he told Floridians. ‘This storm will kill you. Time is running out.'” The areas affected included large swaths of Flagler County, Volusia and St Johns. The same day, Scott “refused to extend the voter registration deadline for the very citizens heeding his orders to evacuate—forcing voters to choose between their safety and the safety of their families, on one hand, and their fundamental right to vote, on the other hand.”
Walker agreed. “Florida’s statutory framework is unconstitutional even if rational basis review applied (which it does not),” Walker wrote. “Quite simply, it is wholly irrational in this instance for Florida to refuse to extend the voter registration deadline when the state already allows the Governor to suspend or move the election date due to an unforeseen emergency.”
The filing also said the effects of the decision not to extend the deadline will hurt some voters more than others. The party argues in its lawsuit that minority voters are more likely to register closer to the election, and that voters in parts of the state untouched by Hurricane Matthew will face fewer obstacles to signing up.
“Quite simply, it is wholly irrational in this instance for Florida to refuse to extend the voter registration deadline.”
In a statement issued late Monday, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant cheered the decision.
“We are thrilled with today’s ruling and we look forward to making our case on Wednesday for extending the voter registration deadline to October 18th,” she said. “This is a win for the people of Florida.”
The registration deadline has become a flashpoint in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, one month ahead of Election Day in one of the most heated presidential campaigns in recent political history. The Democrats’ lawsuit was announced less than two hours before a testy debate between Trump and Clinton.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida’s 10 Democratic U.S. House members sent a letter to Scott urging him to extend the deadline. But Scott had already signaled he was unlikely to do so.
“Everybody has had a lot of time to register,” Scott said Thursday.
Clinton’s campaign announced Monday morning that she and former Vice President Al Gore would focus on voter registration Tuesday during a campaign stop in Miami. President Bill Clinton is also set to promote voter registration on a Tuesday swing through Palm Beach, Lee and Pinellas counties.
Walker said some 100,000 people were likely to register. Democrats have a registration advantage overall in Florida, but Republicans have been narrowing the gap, from about half a million to a quarter million: as of the end of August, Democrats had an advantage of 274,272, according to the state Division of Elections. Since January, Republicans have out-registered Democrats in Florida, 250,000 to 198,000.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida