Federal judge extends Florida's voter registration by a week to Oct. 18

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, shown here in May 2016 speaking during graduation ceremonies for the Florida State University College of Law.  [Special to the Times]
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, shown here in May 2016 speaking during graduation ceremonies for the Florida State University College of Law. [Special to the Times]
Published Oct. 12, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge on Wednesday gave Floridians six more days to register to vote in the upcoming presidential election, citing widespread disruption caused by Hurricane Matthew.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker swiftly approved a six-day extension after a brief court hearing, handing a victory to the Democratic Party and expanding the pool of voters in the nation's largest swing state.

"No right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy," Walker wrote in his three-page order. "Hopefully it is not lost on anyone that the right to have a voice is why this great country exists in the first place."

Walker had already stretched the deadline by one day, from Tuesday to Wednesday, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Florida Democratic Party against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who ordered 1.5 million residents to evacuate their homes but who rejected calls to extend the registration deadline.

Scott and his top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, were both represented in court Wednesday, but attorneys for both said they had no position on the extension.

Scott's silence allowed Democrats to position themselves as being on the side of expanding voting, a staple of Hillary Clinton's campaign appearances.

"I think it's incumbent upon the state to make it easier for people to vote, not harder to vote," said Kevin Hamilton, the Democrats' attorney. "I think it's a shame that the state didn't do this without having to file a lawsuit."

Judge Walker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ruled earlier that Scott was not a party to the case because state law prevents him from changing voter registration deadlines.

Had Scott extended the deadline, the judge said in court, the action likely would have been challenged.

Asked to respond to the ruling, Scott's office re-issued a statement that noted the governor lacked the power to extend the deadline.

The second extension was also sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, League of Women Voters of Florida and third-party groups that sign up voters, such as Mi Familia Vota and New Florida Majority.

Those groups told the judge that even with the extra days, some people still won't be able to vote because their naturalization ceremonies to become U.S. citizens have been delayed until after Oct. 18. Voters must be citizens of the United States.

Detzner ordered all 67 county election supervisors to accept applications from new voters until 5 p.m. on Oct. 18, and forms must be accepted if they are postmarked by that date, even if they arrive days later.

Election supervisors voiced concern with the very tight time-line imposed by the judge and foresaw the potential for new problems.

Early voting begins in many counties on Oct. 24, six days after the new registration deadline, and state law allows for 13 days for the state and counties to process voter registration forms.

Some voters who register at the last minute may have to cast provisional ballots if they aren't yet listed in the state voter database, supervisors said. Unclear postmarks on mailed forms could add to delays.

"There are impediments, but we're obviously going to make it work," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.

Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White urged new voters, and groups registering them, to act quickly and not wait until the last minute.

"Miami-Dade will dedicate the appropriate resources to ensure all applications received by the new deadline are processed timely," White said. "I would also encourage voters to confirm their voter registration status online prior to voting."

Florida, the nation's largest battleground state, has more than 12.5 million voters. The question is whether the extension will produce a surge in new voters and which candidate will be helped the most.

Democrats cited research by University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith, who studied late voter registrations in Florida in 2012 and found that they were disproportionately young, Hispanic or African-American, groups that are more likely to vote Democratic.

Smith's data showed that nearly half of the 116,000 new voters in the last week of registrations in 2012 were between the ages of 18 and 29.

On Monday alone, Pinellas County received 1,700 new voter registration forms, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said.

"We'll do whatever we need to do to get it accomplished," Clark said.

A slow trickle of new voters filed into her offices Wednesday.

Brian Masterson, 43, an electrician, realized only recently he was not on the rolls and said his twin sister Vicki reminded him to fix it.

He registered with no party affiliation at an elections office in Largo and said he plans to vote for Donald Trump because he's an outsider.

"We need someone that's not political," Masterson said. "She (Clinton) had her chance. It's time for someone else."

Areli Huapilla dropped off a form filled out by her 19-year-old brother, Jesus, who couldn't do it himself because he was at his landscaping job.

"I just feel like their voice needs to be heard," Huapilla said.

Huapilla, 27, a volunteer canvasser for Clinton's campaign, said Wednesday's extension gave her an extra day to carry out her mission. She has a 23-year-old sister, a 20-year-old brother, a cousin and an uncle who all are not yet registered.

Huapilla's parents were born in Mexico and she said her family disagrees with Trump's views on race and nationality, such as his references to Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists and his promise to build a wall at the border to keep them out.

"I told my family, 'Just go do it. It takes like five minutes,'" she said. "It's really easy."

City of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, issued a public "thank you" to Judge Walker.

Walker had "very, very valid and compelling reasons" to extend the registration deadline, Buckhorn said.

"It's unfortunate that we had to go this route and the judge had to get involved in the decision making process when it could have been handled at the state level, but unfortunately it wasn't," Buckhorn said.

Times staff writers Megan Reeves, Anastasia Dawson and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @SteveBousquet.