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  1. Florida Politics

Citing 'obscene' disenfranchisement, federal judge hands Florida Democrats another voting victory

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections worker Andrea West adds mail ballots to an inserter Sept. 22 at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Oct. 17, 2016

Calling existing rules "obscene" disenfranchisement, a federal judge in Tallahassee declared late Sunday that Florida must provide a method for voters to fix signature problems that might arise when they vote by mail in the presidential election.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker's ruling was a victory for the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, which sued the state Oct. 3 arguing Florida canvassing boards shouldn't immediately reject a ballot if a voter's signature doesn't match the one on file. The state gives voters who forget to sign their mail ballots a chance to fix the problem before Election Day — but doesn't offer voters with mismatched signatures the same opportunity.

Walker opined the "bizarre" double-standard was unconstitutional.

"It is illogical, irrational, and patently bizarre for the State of Florida to withhold the opportunity to cure from mismatched-signature voters while providing that same opportunity to no-signature voters," he wrote. "And in doing so, the State of Florida has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters arguably for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time."

He ordered the defendant, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, to direct elections supervisors in Florida's 67 counties to notify voters with mismatched signatures about the problem and allow them to submit a signed affidavit to their county elections office identifying themselves and attesting that they were the ones who voted. The same mechanism is already in place for voters who don't sign their ballots.

"In our democracy, those who vote decide everything; those who count the vote decide nothing," Walker wrote. Then he referred to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on obscenity that quipped, "I know it when I see it."

"Likewise, this Court knows disenfranchisement when it sees it and it is obscene."

A spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections did not comment late Sunday beyond confirming it had gotten the judge's ruling.

"We just received the order and are reviewing it," spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in a statement.

Last week, Walker also ruled in Democrats' favor to extend Florida's voter-registration deadline through Tuesday due to Hurricane Matthew. He was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2012.

Democrats had argued the rejection of mismatched-signature ballots hurt them most, citing an analysis conducted for the parties by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith showing about 1 percent of all Florida mail ballots were rejected in 2012 — about 23,000 out of about 2.3 million cast. In the 11 counties he studied — including Broward, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Pinellas — Democrats were more likely to have their ballots rejected than Republicans.

Walker signaled Saturday that he was unlikely to rule in the state's favor. He abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for Monday and excoriated the state's written legal arguments as an "undeclared war on Floridians' right to vote." The state said the ballots were the responsibility of county canvassing boards, not Detzner, the state elections chief.

"(T)his Court will not allow the Florida Secretary of State — a high-level officer of the State of Florida — to take a knee and deprive Florida citizens of their most precious right," Walker wrote.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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