Appeals court reinstates Florida’s disputed voting law

It temporarily blocked a Tallahassee judge’s decision pending the outcome of Florida’s appeal.
A federal appeals court panel has blocked a recent ruling by a federal judge in Tallahassee, temporarily reinstating contested parts of Florida's voting law. The law will likely be in force for the November election.
A federal appeals court panel has blocked a recent ruling by a federal judge in Tallahassee, temporarily reinstating contested parts of Florida's voting law. The law will likely be in force for the November election.
Published May 6, 2022|Updated May 6, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court panel has temporarily reinstated a Florida voting law that a federal judge recently declared unconstitutional for its limits on drop boxes, “line warming” activities at polling sites and third-party voter registration efforts.

In March, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee struck down large parts of Senate Bill 90, passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.

Pointing to the state’s “grotesque history of racial discrimination,” Walker ruled that lawmakers intended to discriminate against Black voters. In a drastic move, he also prohibited the Legislature from passing similar voting restrictions for the next 10 years without court approval.

The state appealed, and on Friday, Walker’s decision was temporarily blocked pending the outcome of that appeal by a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Related: Federal judge says parts of 2021 Florida voting law are unconstitutional

The judges wrote that Walker’s decision was too close to the November election. They also wrote that his decision had some flaws.

The U.S. Supreme Court has instructed that when a court is assessing whether a statute is tainted with discriminatory intent, “the good faith of the state legislature must be presumed,” the judges wrote.

“For starters, in its 288-page opinion, the district court never once mentioned the presumption,” they wrote. “And while we do not require courts to incant magic words, it does not appear to us that the district court here meaningfully accounted for the presumption at all.”

Walker was appointed to the federal bench in Tallahassee by former President Barack Obama. The three 11th Circuit judges are Kevin Newsom, Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Brasher, all appointed by former President Donald Trump. Lagoa was previously named to the Florida Supreme Court by DeSantis.

Their decision means that Senate Bill 90′s provisions will likely be in effect during the November election, when DeSantis is up for reelection along with all legislative and congressional candidates.

DeSantis and lawmakers had advocated for the legislation in the wake of Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that widespread voter fraud cost him his reelection in 2020. Claiming they were combatting voter fraud, they passed numerous changes to the state’s voting laws, including:

  • Limiting the use of ballot drop boxes to early voting hours, unless they’re in a supervisor’s office, and requiring the boxes to be attended at all times;
  • Requiring third-party groups to issue a warning when trying to register voters, including telling voters that their registration application might not be turned in before the voter registration deadline or within the required 14 days.
  • Changing the rules regarding the “no-solicitation zone” around a polling site to prohibit “any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter.”

Numerous plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP, sued, claiming those provisions were unconstitutional. During a trial in Walker’s court, they testified that the warnings have had a chilling effect on registering new voters, and they said that county elections supervisors have interpreted the provisions too broadly.

Walker agreed that part of the bill targeted Black voters, writing that they were more likely than white voters to wait in long lines at polling sites and more likely to register to vote through third-party groups.

He also noted that the Legislature in the last two decades has passed voting restrictions after Black voters saw gains in the polls.

“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern,” Walker wrote. “At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this Court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental.”

Republican lawmakers have already eliminated the warning that third-party groups had to issue under Senate Bill 90. This year, they deleted that warning, an apparent attempt to get around Walker’s concerns.

DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin said in a statement that the governor’s office was pleased by the decision.

“We expect this law to stand up to any further legal scrutiny,” Griffin said. “Despite partisan criticism, Florida’s election integrity laws are constitutional because they protect every voter.”

Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, a social justice group that was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that they were “deeply disappointed and disturbed” by the court’s decision.

“Let’s be clear, this law undoes the progress that voting rights groups have made and targets the very tools minority communities, like ours, use to increase voter turnout,” Burney-Clark said.