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'Plaintiffs are right': Federal court rules against Florida voting law provisions

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A United States District Court has ruled against most of the legal provisions created in Florida’s 2021 voting law.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Justice signaled interest in the legal battle unfolding over Senate Bill 90, signed into law on May 6, 2021. Due to the lawsuit, which began the day the SB 90 was signed into law, the effects of the legislation have been delayed.

Now it appears many of the changes made by the law have been struck down in federal court. In a nearly 300-page order on the lawsuit, the federal court found that the majority of the plaintiffs’ challenge to the law was right, and ordered those provisions blocked. The response from the court was detailed in its takedown of the defendants arguments.

In this case, the State of Florida had argued that SB 90 “makes minor prophylactic changes to the election code.”

The law’s opponents instead argued that SB 90 “runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters, and intentionally targeting minority voters – all to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power,” according to the judge.

The court order on the lawsuit notes that over the course of litigation, it has heard from 42 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents and evidence, with witnesses including state senators and statisticians.

The court described its ruling as “recognizing that the right to vote, and the VRA particularly, are under siege.” To that end, the court was plain with its decision.

“Having reviewed all the evidence, this court finds that, for the most part, plaintiffs are right,” Judge Mark E. Walker wrote. At issue for the decision were SB 90’s effects on the Voting Rights Act, and how it would change voting for Florida’s residents. Calling the ability to vote sacred, Walker compared it to prayer.

“Federal courts would not countenance a law denying Christians their sacred right to prayer,” Walker wrote, “They should not countenance a law denying Floridians their sacred right to vote.”

Walker’s commentary echoes a sentiment similar to recent statements by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, when talking about new curricular changes to Florida’s schools. While speaking in Hialeah to promote a grant for more education funding to workforce training programs, DeSantis said changes to state curriculum were intended to foster a willingness to be American.

“Everyone that comes out of our school system in Florida is going to be called upon to exercise the duty of being an American citizen. And that means something. You need to understand what it means to be an American. You need to understand the founding principles that built this country, you need to understand our Constitution and our Bill of Rights and why the founders designed it the way they did,” DeSantis said.

Focusing first on the history of voting in Florida and what the court calls “chaos” of the 2020 election, Walker notes that SB 90 made sweeping changes to voting Florida’s election code, “with a specific focus on VBM,” or voting by mail. In the order, the changes are compared to state officials noting the high level of security of the election itself, even with larger numbers of voters using vote by mail.

The court wrote in the order that “exact justification for SB 90 as a whole, and for its constituent parts, is difficult to pin down, with sponsors and supporters offering conflicting or nonsensical rationales.”

According to the court, “plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Burch, testified that ‘in general’ SB 90’s stated purpose was to proactively ‘instill . . . voter confidence by ensuring election integrity and security.’” The court said that rationale was suspect, due to 2020’s “high confidence in the election among Floridians.”

It also notes that no evidence provided to the state legislature has shown “fraud is even a marginal issue in Florida elections.” Additionally, the court wrote that “to the extent that legislators claimed that SB 90 prophylactically prevents fraud that has yet to occur, Senator [Gary M.] Farmer testified that the Legislature was never presented with an example of any type of VBM fraud that SB 90 might prevent.”

Communications among state lawmakers, including Florida GOP Chairman Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, during the case also led the court to the conclusion that “the Legislature passed SB 90 with partisan purpose,” even if not specifically racially discriminatory.

Weighing the provisions to be enacted by SB 90’s full inclusion in state statute, the federal court ordered that state officials could not enforce the following bill provisions:

  • Limiting of ballot drop box use during early voting hours unless they’re in a supervisor’s office, and requiring boxes to be manned at all times
  • Requirements that third-party registration groups issue warnings about voter registration deadlines and application delivery
  • Rules which changed no-solicitation zone rules at polling sites that might “influence” voters

Much of the motivation for how Walker examined the law’s provisions were focused on the state’s history of racial discrimination when it comes to voting.

“This court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates,” Walker wrote. He said in his court ruling that “the present effects of Florida’s past are also relevant in other ways. As the Supreme Court has recognized, ‘racial identification is highly correlated with political affiliation.’ That has long been true in Florida.”

The court’s decision and order was set as a permanent injunction, and ordered that neither defendants Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, or any of their successors, deputies, officers, employees or agents may enforce the relevant blocked provisions.

Calling the history of discrimination in Florida “grotesque,” Walker also blocked state lawmakers from passing future laws involving drop boxes, third-party voter registration or efforts to limit “line warming” activities at polling sites without court approval for 10 years.

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

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