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Florida’s new election law hit with third legal challenge

A lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court contends that the changes dealing with issues such as voting by mail could curtail voting by Black and Latino residents.
A poll worker verifies a Vote-by-Mail ballot as a voter uses the official ballot drop box setup at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station on October 19, 2020 in Miami.
A poll worker verifies a Vote-by-Mail ballot as a voter uses the official ballot drop box setup at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station on October 19, 2020 in Miami. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published May 19, 2021|Updated May 19, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Alleging discrimination against Black and Latino voters, a coalition of groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new Florida elections law that includes additional restrictions on voting by mail.

The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. district court in Tallahassee is at least the third challenge to the law, which was passed last month by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis during an appearance on Fox News.

The law (SB 90) was one of the most controversial issues of the 2021 legislative session and came after a relatively smooth 2020 election in Florida. Republican lawmakers contended the changes were needed to ensure election security and prevent fraud in future elections.

But the lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of the groups Florida Rising Together, Faith in Florida, UnidosUS, the Equal Ground Education Fund, the Hispanic Federation and Poder Latinx, contends that the changes dealing with issues such as voting by mail could curtail voting by Black and Latino residents.

“While SB 90 imposes unjustified burdens on all voters, it places disproportionate burdens on Black voters, Latino voters, disabled voters, and voters who face greater challenges in exercising the right to vote, even in the best of circumstances,” the 91-page lawsuit said. “SB 90 imposes specific obstacles on voters’ ability to cast ballots through in-person voting, mail voting, and the use of secure drop-boxes for early voting.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. It names as defendants Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Highlands County Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg, Gadsden County Supervisor of Elections Shirley Green Knight, Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington and Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. The four supervisors are named as representatives of the rest of Florida’s county elections supervisors.

The challenge seeks an injunction and focuses on four parts of the new law:

• Restrictions on the availability and use of drop boxes, where residents can drop off vote-by-mail ballots. The lawsuit contends, in part, that the additional restrictions will particularly affect people who work during the day and voters seeking to avoid long lines at polls.

• Identification requirements for requesting vote-by-mail ballots. The lawsuit contends that the requirements could prevent many people from obtaining vote-by-mail ballots.

• Restrictions on providing such things as food and water to people waiting in line to vote. The lawsuit contends that areas with large numbers of Black and Latino voters have traditionally had longer wait times for voting and that churches and other organizations have provided food, water and other aid to voters.

• A requirement that third-party voter registration groups provide a disclaimer to people signing up to vote. The lawsuit contends that disclaimer “is intended to and will have a chilling effect on third party voter registration organizations.”

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Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature and other GOP-led legislatures across the country moved quickly this year to change elections laws as former President Donald Trump has falsely blamed “rigged” and fraudulent elections for Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in November. Courts rejected numerous lawsuits in which Trump and his supporters challenged the handling of the November elections. Trump defeated Biden handily in Florida.

During an appearance May 6 on the Fox News show Fox & Friends to sign the Florida bill, DeSantis called it the “strongest election integrity measures in the country” and said it “keeps us ahead of the curve” after the 2020 election.

“We’re not resting on our laurels, and me signing this bill here says, ‘Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency, and this is a great place for democracy,’” DeSantis said.

But the law was immediately hit with two lawsuits from groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights Florida and Common Cause. Those cases are pending.

The lawsuit Monday was filed on behalf of the other groups by attorneys from the Advancement Project National Office, Demos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the national law firm Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

It pointed to a history in Florida of efforts to discriminate against Black and Latino voters.

“Florida’s recent legislation attacking the voting rights of its Black and Latino residents is like a virus attacking the human heart,” the lawsuit said. “Without a remedy to undo the effects, our democracy will die.”

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