Federal trial over Florida voting bill begins with focus on voter registration

Groups say a provision in Senate Bill 90 has had a chilling effect on voter registration efforts.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is presiding over a federal trial regarding Florida's new election law.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is presiding over a federal trial regarding Florida's new election law. [ Florida State College of Law ]
Published Jan. 31, 2022|Updated Feb. 1, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A federal trial challenging recent changes to Florida’s voting laws began Monday with voting rights groups claiming the laws have made it harder to register voters.

During a day of testimony over the video conferencing software Zoom, advocates claimed that one of the lesser-discussed changes to the state’s voting laws has created a chilling effect on both potential voters and those who try to sign them up to vote.

The trial is over Senate Bill 90, passed by GOP lawmakers last year at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis. The legislation targeted the state’s vote-by-mail process and the use of ballot drop boxes, which were the basis of some of former President Donald Trump’s widespread claims of voter fraud.

A host of left-leaning groups — including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP — sued elections supervisors, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Attorney General Ashley Moody last year over the law, saying the requirements were burdensome for certain groups of voters, including minorities.

Senate Bill 90 made mostly administrative changes to the state’s voting laws, but it also:

  • Limited the use of ballot drop boxes to early voting hours, unless they’re in a supervisor’s office, and required them to be manned at all times;
  • Outlawed the possession of more than two vote-by-mail ballots other than those of immediate family;
  • Reduced the amount of time a vote-by-mail request is in effect, from two general election cycles to one cycle.

On Monday, testimony focused on an aspect of the bill that has been given less public attention.

The legislation required third-party groups to issue a warning when trying to register voters. The groups now have to tell voters that their registration application might not be turned in before the voter registration deadline or within the required 14 days. And they have to inform potential voters how to register on the Secretary of State’s website and how to determine whether the application has been delivered.

The provisions were a reaction to groups not submitting registration forms in time, lawmakers said.

That warning has had a chilling effect on both potential voters and the people trying to register those voters, said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. One of the League’s activities includes registering voters.

Scoon recalled how she was recently trying to register voters at a library. She was on the cusp of registering one man, she said, who was enthusiastic until she got to the warning. The man then made a face and said he would register another time, she said.

“He walked away. He did not register,” Scoon said.

The required warning has also dampened enthusiasm among the League’s members, with some saying they didn’t want to keep trying to register voters, she said.

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“They were embarrassed,” Scoon said. “They felt they were having to say things they didn’t believe were true.”

The experience was echoed by Esteban Garces, co-executive director of Poder Latinx, a group that seeks to empower their community through the electoral process and community organizing.

Garces testified that registering voters was central to its mission, and having to read the script is “negatively impacting our ability to meet our mission.” Potential voters have found the instructions confusing and suspicious.

“They just walked away,” Garces said. “They didn’t like what they heard.”

Attorneys noted that the organization has had two instances of not submitting voter registration forms on time. Garces said the forms were still submitted before the voter registration deadline, and they fired the person responsible within a week of conducting an internal investigation.

Scoon also testified that the law’s provisions around drop boxes have been broadly interpreted by elections supervisors. She noted that in her hometown of Panama City, Bay County’s elections supervisor removed its drive-up drop box to avoid running afoul of the law.

She also said she’s heard supervisors interpret new “no-solicitation zone” rules too broadly, restricting all activity by third-party groups within 150 feet of a polling place. The law prohibits “any activity with the intent to influence, or effect of influencing, a voter,” but it also explicitly states that “solicitation” does not prohibit “nonpartisan assistance” including “giving items to voters.”

The trial is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, an Obama-appointed judge who has been a thorn in the side of Republican governors on a variety of legal issues over the years.

The trial is expected to last two weeks and involve nearly 30 witnesses. It got off to a slow start on Monday after attorneys spent more than four hours questioning Scoon, the first witness.

That prompted Walker to inform lawyers that the trial would go all day Saturday and Sunday as well. The trial is being held virtually because of the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

“If we don’t go seven days a week, we will never get through this proceeding,” Walker said.

The witnesses are expected to include five Democratic lawmakers, several elections supervisors and Dan Smith, one of three University of Florida professors who were initially barred by the university from testifying against the state. The university eventually relented; a lawsuit against the university by Smith and the other professors is pending in Walker’s courtroom.

Voting by mail has traditionally been popular with Florida Republicans, who loosened restrictions on its use decades ago. In the 2020 election, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats in the state cast more ballots by mail than Republicans.

DeSantis has used Senate Bill 90 to trumpet his efforts to combat election fraud on a national stage. He signed the bill into law during an exclusive event on Fox News. Since then, he’s pushed for even more voting changes, including strengthening penalties for possessing more than two ballots and creating a new office to investigate voting-related crimes.

On Monday, a Republican senator introduced legislation to create that office, and its first hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

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