Florida sued again over COVID-19 voting protocols

This is the third recent emergency litigation effort from the racial justice organizations to change how the state is holding elections amid COVID-19.
Andrew Stier, 58, of Palm Harbor walks into a voting a precinct located at Bethel Lutheran Church Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Clearwater.
Andrew Stier, 58, of Palm Harbor walks into a voting a precinct located at Bethel Lutheran Church Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published April 21, 2020|Updated April 21, 2020

A group of voting rights organizations is suing Florida again over its elections protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing that not enough was done during the March 17 primary to allow registered voters to safely cast a ballot.

In the amended complaint, the groups are asking in part for the state to supplement voter registration outreach efforts, expand mail voting deadlines and make other in-person voting options available. The organizations, which include LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, Demos, the Advancement Project, Dream Defenders and New Florida Majority, are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission.

“I think we know enough that we could take precautionary measures to make sure that voters have accessible options to them, depending on their individual circumstances,” said Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney for the southeast office of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “We cannot ignore the changes that are required to be made ... I believe that the measures that we’re asking for is something that supervisors of elections already see a need to do.”

This is the third recent emergency litigation effort from the racial justice organizations to change how the state is holding elections amid COVID-19. The past two requests for relief were rejected by federal judge in the Northern District of Florida. Romero-Craft said the groups are confident fixes can be made before the August 18 primary election.

The groups argue that the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for voter registration organizations to continue outreach efforts and the state should reach out to inactive or new voters directly, or inform voters of any errors in their registration forms.

Here is a list of the remedies the lawsuit is seeking:

▪ Reach out to unregistered and inactive voters offering the opportunity to register or update voter registration.

▪ Send a vote-by-mail ballot to all registered voters in their preferred language.

▪ Extend the deadline to register to vote, to return mail ballot and to fix issues with mail ballots.

▪ Simplify the Online Voter Registration process by modifying requirements and notify voters of application errors.

▪ Provide more drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots.

▪ Expand the days, hours and locations for early voting in each county.

▪ Provide accommodations for voters with disabilities to allow them to vote privately.

▪ Provide clear communication to voters regarding registration options, the vote-by-mail process and in-person voting logistics, including polling place closures and drop box locations.

They’re also seeking alternative in-person voting options, including curbside voting at each polling location and expanding availability of “supervised voting,” which would allow for assigning poll workers to a location where residents could be at risk by leaving, like in a nursing home.

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The state association representing Florida’s supervisors of elections recently recommended that DeSantis extend early voting and allow for the operation of voting centers on election day in August and November, but warned that the state isn’t capable of holding an all-mail election.

The lawsuit cites six registered voters who say they had problems voting in the March 17 election, which was held regularly despite federal guidance against gatherings of more than 10 people. At least two poll workers in South Florida later reported testing positive for COVID-19.

One of the voters cited is an 85-year-old woman in Seminole County who says her mail ballot has been rejected twice in the past and she requires Spanish-language assistance at the polls. But because she has breast cancer, she cannot vote in person this year. Lawyers claim that if the state offered curbside voting, she could vote.

Another woman in Leon County said she was not able to vote in Florida’s presidential preference primary because she was in self isolation after an international trip. She said she prefers to vote in person in November because she doesn’t trust her ballot will arrive in time for it to be counted. A third voter is a student at the University of Florida, who was not allowed to return to campus during the pandemic and is living with her parents in New York.

“Despite the emergent circumstances, however, no adjustments to election procedures were made to allow voters unable to vote at their assigned polling places to more easily obtain or return vote-by-mail ballots and be sure they would be counted,” the lawsuit claims.

Neither the governor’s office nor the office of the secretary of state responded to a request for comment on the litigation.

While there has been a push from Democrats and other voting groups to expand mail voting, Romero-Craft admits it isn’t a replacement for in-person voting. Rejection rates tend to be higher among blacks and Latinos, and they can sometimes be distrusting that their vote will be counted, she said.

Yet, “it may be the best option for folks who have a stable residence, who have some sort of underlying health issues that makes them highly susceptible to health risks if they contract COVID-19,” she added.

The lawsuit also alleges the disproportionate impact on blacks, Latinos and people with disabilities violates the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We believe that what these measures are meant to address are issues that are systemic within the voting structure we believe that these changes can and should be made long-term,” Kira-Romero said.

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