TALLAHASSEE — With a closely watched trial set to begin next month, a federal judge on Wednesday struck a blow to left-leaning groups seeking to expand Florida’s vote-by-mail procedures.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied most portions of the groups’ requests for preliminary injunctions in the case, which is a consolidation of three lawsuits, saying the plaintiffs lack “a substantial likelihood of succeeding” on the vast majority of the issues.
In one of the lawsuits, the group Priorities USA and other plaintiffs want the judge to extend a deadline for mail-in ballots to be returned and require free postage for the ballots. They’re also challenging a provision in Florida law restricting paid workers from collecting mail-in ballots.
But Hinkle rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that requiring voters to pick up the tab for stamps amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
“Postage charged by the United States Postal Service --- like the fee charged by any other courier or the bus fare for getting to the polls to vote in person --- is not a tax prohibited by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. And the requirement to pay postage also does not violate any other federal provision,” Hinkle wrote in Wednesday’s five-page order, referring to the U.S constitutional amendment that bars poll taxes.
The judge also swatted down plaintiffs’ attempt at extending the deadline for supervisors of elections to receive mail-in ballots. Under current law, the ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day. The plaintiffs want ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day to be valid, as some states allow.
But Hinkle noted that the deadline is discretionary.
States can “reasonably decide” to require ballots to be received on or before the day of the election, he wrote.
“This eliminates the problem of missing, unclear, or even altered postmarks, eliminates delay that can have adverse consequences, and eliminates the remote possibility that in an extremely close election --- Florida has had some --- a person who did not vote on or before Election Day can fill out and submit a ballot later,” he said.
Hinkle also rejected most of the numerous claims in a lawsuit filed by the group Dream Defenders and individual plaintiffs. Some claims in the lawsuit are “unlikely to succeed on the merits” because they are based on “existing declarations of the COVID-19 emergency, and the possibility of a different emergency declaration is too speculative to constitute an injury in fact,” he wrote.
The plaintiffs also “have failed to show that they will suffer irreparable harm” before he issues a ruling after a trial set to begin on July 20, Hinkle said.
“Part of the explanation is that no elections will occur during that period --- with the possible exception of one local election the plaintiffs have not even mentioned --- and the plaintiffs can work around the alleged registration deficiencies,” he added, referring to a request for changes to the state’s online voter-registration system.
However, Hinkle said a claim regarding blind voters was worthy of attention.
The Dream Defenders are asking the judge to order supervisors of elections to provide electronic ballots so blind voters can cast their ballots in secret, without assistance from other people.
It will take at least 45 days for the state to order and set up a system the plaintiffs say is necessary to address the electronic ballots, according to the plaintiffs. Since Secretary of State Laurel Lee and county supervisors of elections haven’t responded to the issue yet, Hinkle allowed the issue to remain pending.
Although the federal judge signaled where he stands on some of the issues, he cautioned against reading too much into Wednesday’s order.
“The parties should draw no inference one way or the other about likely success on items not addressed in this section of this order. The ruling does not limit the evidence that may be presented or foreclose a contrary ruling at the forthcoming trial on the merits,” Hinkle noted.
The case in Florida, a battleground state considered critical for a White House win in November by President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has drawn national attention. Hinkle allowed the Republican National Committee and other state and national GOP groups to intervene in the case.
The state late last month asked Hinkle to dismiss the challenges, arguing that they are based on “speculative fears” about what might occur later in the year.
Attorneys for the DeSantis administration and the Republican organizations argued that the plaintiffs are asking Hinkle “to rewrite Florida’s elections laws.”
The governor is working with county supervisors and others to address challenges posed by the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, DeSantis’ lawyers said.
But the plaintiffs accused Florida officials of ignoring “the harsh reality of the pandemic.”
The scrutiny of the state’s vote-by-mail processes comes as supervisors of elections are encouraging voters to cast their ballots by mail, following widespread issues during the March presidential primary. In April, the supervisors asked DeSantis for emergency measures they said would help them cope with an anticipated “significant statewide shortage” of poll workers because of the coronavirus.
County elections officials “encountered significant challenges” during the March presidential primary elections, such as polling places becoming unavailable, difficulty in acquiring hand sanitizer and other supplies and “substantial numbers of poll workers deciding not to work,” Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones, a former president of the Florida Supervisor of Elections organization, wrote to DeSantis on April 6.
More than two months later, DeSantis has not agreed to the supervisors’ requests.
“Faced with the virtual certainty that Florida voters will flood the vote-by-mail system and potentially stretch it beyond its limits, Florida’s elected officials stand idly by and disclaim responsibility for ensuring that voters can effectively cast their ballots,” lawyers for the Priorities USA plaintiffs wrote in a brief filed on June 15.