Federal judge extends voter registration deadline, rebukes state for 'irrational' decision

Wednesday is the last day for Florida residents to register to vote in the Nov. 8 general election. [ZACK WITTMAN  |  Times]
Wednesday is the last day for Florida residents to register to vote in the Nov. 8 general election. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Oct. 11, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A judge on Monday extended Florida's voter registration deadline by one more day, through Wednesday, because of Hurricane Matthew, calling it "irrational" for the state to reject the idea.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted the Florida Democratic Party's request for a temporary restraining order, which included a rebuke of the state for refusing to extend the deadline past its scheduled time of 5 p.m. today.

"Quite simply, it is wholly irrational in this instance for Florida to refuse to extend the voter registration deadline when the state already allows the governor to suspend or move the election date due to an unforeseen emergency," Walker wrote in a 16-page order. "If aspiring eligible Florida voters are barred from registering to vote, then those voters are stripped of one of our most precious freedoms."

Walker also said state law is unconstitutional because while Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, can suspend or reschedule an election, no state law allows for an extension of the voter registration deadline.

"The right to vote is a 'precious' and 'fundamental' right," Walker wrote, quoting from an earlier case.

The judge said more than 100,000 "aspiring eligible" Florida voters are likely to register in the final week before the deadline.

The Democratic Party's lawsuit also asserted that the suspension of mail delivery at the height of the storm could result in some voter registration forms not reaching election offices by Tuesday, disenfranchising more Florida residents.

Walker, 49, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2012, will hold a court hearing Wednesday in Tallahassee on the Democrats' request that the voter registration deadline be extended until at least Oct. 18.

"We are thrilled with today's ruling and we look forward to making our case on Wednesday for extending the voter registration deadline to Oct. 18," Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant said. "This is a win for the people of Florida."

Scott had rejected repeated demands from Democrats to extend the deadline.

After the order was issued Monday, Scott's spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, referred the Times/Herald to a previous comment. On Thursday, the governor, who also serves as chair of a pro-Donald Trump super PAC, said of the deadline: "I'm not going to extend it. Everybody has had a lot of time to register."

Scott's office said the judge's ruling noted that the governor lacks the authority to extend the deadline.

Some counties have added more hours to allow more voters to register.

For example, Pinellas County's three elections offices were open all day Saturday, and St. Johns on the northeast coast, an area hard hit by Hurricane Matthew, stayed open until 7 p.m. Monday and will again today.

"Our office is fine," said St. Johns Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes.

To vote, you must be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen. Many people register at driver's license offices, but public libraries also sign up voters, and grass roots groups have been signing up voters for months.

Florida has more than 12.5 million voters, with thousands more joining the rolls each week.

All voters, regardless of their party affiliation, can vote in the Nov. 8 election.

In Florida, Democrats are usually more aggressive at registering new voters closer to the fall election.

The party has focused its energy on young people, African-Americans and Hispanics, especially on the Interstate 4 corridor that bisects the state in Orlando and is considered crucial territory in presidential elections.

Hillary Clinton scheduled a voter registration campaign event in Miami today with former Vice President Al Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential race to George W. Bush by 537 votes in Florida.

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.