Federal judge denies request to extend Florida voter registration deadline

But Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker took the state to task for the failures to the online voter registration system and lamented the state’s “perennially chaotic” elections.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker speaking during 2016 graduation ceremonies at the Florida State University College of Law.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker speaking during 2016 graduation ceremonies at the Florida State University College of Law. [ Florida State College of Law ]
Published Oct. 9, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

A federal judge on Friday rejected calls by several voting rights groups that Florida should further extend its voter registration deadline following repeated outages to the state’s online portal on Monday night, the last day people could sign up to vote in the Nov. 3 election.

In an overnight ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker called his decision “an incredibly close call” but said that “Florida’s interest in preventing chaos in its already precarious — and perennially chaotic — election” outweighed the concern of potentially thousands of Floridians being unable to cast ballots in the Nov. 3 general election.

The state had argued that reopening the voter registration deadline could mean that Floridians who registered during that later time may have to cast provisional ballots if counties can’t update their voter rolls in time, and that extending the deadline could cause voter confusion and other issues.

Still, Walker’s ruling took the state to task for the failures to its online voter registration system and said that, had Secretary of State Laurel Lee not already extended the deadline for several hours Tuesday, he would have had “little pause” in granting the request from the plaintiffs, which include organizations like Demos, New Florida Majority and The Advancement Project National Office.

Walker ripped the state for how it handles elections and for how it dealt with the problems with the online voter registration system. He said Lee, who was appointed last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, should have extended the deadline for a longer period of time.

He said extending it through midnight Tuesday, instead of 7 p.m., “would have given these potential voters a fighting chance. Instead, the state chose to notify the public during a normal workday and gave them only seven hours to somehow become apprised of their rights and register, all while also participating in their normal workday, school, family and caregiving responsibilities.”

He noted that, while he has to weigh the potential consequences of extending the voter registration deadline, he is mindful that potentially thousands of voters were deprived of their right to vote because Florida was “unable to run a functional voter registration website” during the crucial final hours leading up to the registration deadline.

“These potential voters include a public-school teacher ... a past felon who jumped through hoops to be eligible to vote ... a survivor of domestic violence ... and countless others whose stories are not before this court,” Walker wrote. “To these potential voters, the state’s answer for its own failures can only be characterized as ‘so sad, too bad.’”

A spokeswoman with the Advancement Project said the groups will not be appealing Walker’s ruling.

She shared a statement from the plaintiffs that expressed disappointment with the ruling and called the state’s website issues “another episode of Florida’s long history of voter suppression.”

The group’s statement pointed to the Legislature’s move to require all people with felonies to pay off their fines and fees before being eligible to vote as well as the technical issues with the online voter registration system as examples, it said, of how “Florida has consistently failed Florida voters.”

Related: Florida ruled felons must pay to vote. Now it doesn't know how many can.

“The state’s failure to provide a meaningful extension of the voter registration deadline disproportionately harms Black and brown communities and Florida’s poor who are more heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and less likely to have received the midday notification of the registration deadline extension on Tuesday," the group said in the statement. “Moving forward, we will continue our commitment to ensure that all voters who were able to register will be protected during all voting periods.”

During a press conference Friday, DeSantis said he was not surprised by Walker’s ruling because he believed the state had appropriately handled the website issues by choosing to reopen the deadline Tuesday until 7 p.m.

“I think we did the right thing and I didn’t see there being much of a federal issue at this point,” DeSantis told reporters. He added that he had not had a chance to read Walker’s ruling.

Some voting rights groups not involved in the lawsuit expressed dismay Friday that the registration deadline was not extended further.

“This ruling is a setback for countless Floridians who expected their state to maintain a functioning voter registration website,” Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of All Voting is Local, said in a statement.

Ashwell said Lee and DeSantis had “years of warnings” about the possibility that the online portal would crash during high-traffic periods and “yet they did nothing.”

“We hope our elected officials learn from this dysfunction and adequately prepare for the scores of voters who intend to vote by mail and in person during the upcoming general election.”

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said while it was disappointing the deadline wasn’t extended further, she understood and respected Walker’s decision.

“He had to carefully balance what would be in the best interest for this Florida election,” Brigham said. “Reading parts of this opinion, it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make. That came through.”

She noted that parts of the opinion were “very stinging about the state of Florida and how it handled this. We certainly feel that pain.”

There are 25 days left until Election Day. Early in-person voting begins as soon as Oct. 19. Already, more than 1.3 million Floridians have cast votes by mail ballot.

Walker concluded his ruling with a final note: “Every man who has stepped foot on the moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science.”

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at beginning Sunday, Oct. 11.

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HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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