Appeals court reinstates disputed Florida election law

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court panel has temporarily reinstated a Florida voting law that a federal judge recently ruled unconstitutional for its limits on drop boxes, “queue warming” activities at polling places and registration efforts. of third-party voters.

In March, US District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee struck down much of Senate Bill 90, passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.

Pointing to the state’s “grotesque history of racial discrimination,” Walker ruled that lawmakers intended to discriminate against black voters. In a drastic move, he also barred the Legislature from passing similar voting restrictions for the next 10 years without court approval.

The state appealed, and on Friday, Walker’s decision was temporarily blocked pending the outcome of that appeal by a three-judge panel at the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Related: Federal judge says parts of Florida’s 2021 voting law are unconstitutional

The justices wrote that Walker’s decision was too close to the November election. They also wrote that his decision had some flaws.

The US Supreme Court ordered that when a court assesses whether a statute is tainted with discriminatory intent, “the good faith of the state legislature must be presumed,” the justices wrote.

“In its 288-page opinion, the district court never mentioned the presumption to begin with,” they wrote. “And while we don’t require courts to enchant magic words, it doesn’t appear to us that the presumption was accounted for in any meaningful way by the district court.”

Walker was appointed to the federal bench in Tallahassee by former President Barack Obama. The three eleventh circuit judges are Kevin Newsom, Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Brasher, all appointed by former President Donald Trump. Lagoa was previously appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by DeSantis.

His decision means that the provisions of Senate Bill 90 will likely be in place during the November election, when DeSantis is up for re-election along with all congressional and legislative candidates.

DeSantis and lawmakers pushed for the legislation in the wake of Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that widespread voter fraud cost him his re-election in 2020. Claiming they were combating voter fraud, they passed numerous changes to the state’s voting laws, which include:

  • Limit the use of ballot boxes to early voting hours, unless they are in a supervisor’s office, and require that ballot boxes be guarded at all times;
  • Require third-party groups to issue a warning when trying to register voters, including telling voters that their registration application may not be delivered by the voter registration deadline or within the required 14 days.
  • Change the rules regarding the “no solicitation zone” around a polling place to prohibit “any activity with the intent to influence or the effect of influencing a voter.”

Numerous plaintiffs, including the Florida League of Women Voters and the NAACP, sued, claiming those provisions were unconstitutional. During a court trial in Walker, they testified that the warnings have had a chilling effect on new voter registration and said county supervisors of elections have interpreted the provisions too broadly.

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Walker agreed that part of the bill was aimed at black voters, writing that they were more likely than white voters to wait in long lines at polling places and to register to vote through third-party groups.

He also noted that the Legislature over the past two decades has passed voting restrictions after black voters saw polling gains.

“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern,” Walker wrote. “At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law that places a disproportionate burden on Black voters, this Court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental.”

Republican lawmakers have already removed the warning that third-party groups had to issue under Senate Bill 90. This year, they removed that warning, an apparent attempt to circumvent Walker’s concerns.

DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement that the governor’s office was satisfied with the decision.

“We hope this law will withstand any further legal scrutiny,” Griffin said. “Despite partisan criticism, Florida’s electoral integrity laws are constitutional because they protect all voters.”

Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, a social justice group that was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that they were “deeply disappointed and disturbed” by the court’s decision.

“Let’s be clear, this law undoes the progress that voting rights groups have made and targets the very tools that minority communities, like ours, use to increase voter turnout,” Burney-Clark said.

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