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5 things to know about the federal trial over Florida’s new voting law

A breakdown on the new law, why it’s being challenged and who is the judge presiding over the case.
In this Oct. 26, 2020, file photo an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
In this Oct. 26, 2020, file photo an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Jan. 31

TALLAHASSEE — As the 2022 midterms heat up, a federal trial over a Florida voting law that put in new restrictions for mail-in ballots and the use of drop boxes is underway.

The trial, which could last up to two weeks, is a nationally watched case that pits civil rights and voting rights advocates against Florida and national Republican groups. Here are five things to know about the case:

What is SB 90?

The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 90 along party lines in April 2021. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law shortly after, and it took effect immediately.

The new law made a number of changes to how Floridians vote by mail, including:

  • Floridians now have to give a driver’s license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number to request a vote by mail ballot.
  • Requests for mail ballots don’t last as long. Instead of requesting a ballot through the next two general elections — the next four years — requests are limited to the next general election — or two years. However, current requests are grandfathered in.
  • Drop boxes are limited to early voting hours, unless it’s a drop box at the supervisor’s office, and the boxes must be physically manned while in use. Relying on remote video surveillance isn’t allowed.
  • Election officials are not allowed to mail ballots to a voter unless they are requested.

Who pushed the law and why?

Senate Bill 90 was a hotly debated measure during the 2021 legislative session after former President Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election and his unsubstantiated complaints about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Florida joined several other states in passing restrictive voting laws.

While the bill was debated in Florida, Democrats accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote and appeasing Trump’s fraud claims. The measure was watered down by Florida Republicans after Georgia lawmakers faced backlash from corporations and Major League Baseball.

In April 2021, Senate Bill 90 passed the Legislature along party lines. A month later, DeSantis signed the measure into law during a nationally televised event hosted by a Trump fan club.

Related: Under fire from right, DeSantis calls for tougher election laws

Why is it being challenged?

The new voting law prompted multiple lawsuits by several civil rights and voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.

“SB 90 is a bill that purports to solve problems that do not exist, caters to a dangerous lie about the 2020 election that threatens our most basic democratic values, and, in the end, makes it harder to vote without adequate justification for doing so,” wrote the plaintiffs in the suit filed by lawyer Marc Elias on behalf of the League of Women Voters.

Lawyers working for the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have intervened in the federal lawsuit, and have tried to defend the law by pointing to the arrest of a Trump supporter and alleged voter fraud in one of Florida’s biggest GOP strongholds.

How long is the trial supposed to last?

The trial will take place virtually in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, started Monday and is expected to last approximately two weeks.

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Who is presiding over the case?

Chief District Judge Mark Walker is presiding over the federal trial.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, shown here in May 2016 speaking during graduation ceremonies for the Florida State University College of Law.  [Special to the Times]
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, shown here in May 2016 speaking during graduation ceremonies for the Florida State University College of Law. [Special to the Times]

Walker was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by both of Florida’s U.S. senators at the time, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, who is no longer in office.

He was confirmed 94-0 at a time when many of President Barack Obama’s appointments were being blocked by Republicans.

Related: Meet Mark Walker, the judge who keeps clashing with Rick Scott

Over the years, Walker has clashed with Florida Republicans. He has ruled against the state a number of times, including invalidating Florida’s system for restoring voting rights.

Walker also has presided over a case in which he backed the Florida House’s use of subpoena power in an investigation of the state’s tourism marketing arms, Visit Florida, and a prominent vendor, Pat Roberts.

He also ruled against the state last year, blocking DeSantis and three Florida sheriffs from enforcing a key portion of the state’s so-called anti-riot law, in part because he said “it encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

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