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Appeals court reinstates Florida’s 2021 election law provisions struck down by judge

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 5/6/2022 Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel
A Poll Deputy fixes a "Vote Here" sign set up outside of a polling station during the Congressional district 20 elections on Jan. 11, 2022, in Lauderhill, Florida. © Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/TNS A Poll Deputy fixes a "Vote Here" sign set up outside of a polling station during the Congressional district 20 elections on Jan. 11, 2022, in Lauderhill, Florida.

A federal appeals court on Friday overruled a judge who struck down much of Florida’s controversial 2021 election law, allowing the provisions to go into effect while a lawsuit makes its way through the courts.

Judge Mark Walker had ruled in March that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against Black voters in drafting the law and ordered the state not to make any future changes to those provisions without his court’s approval.

But three judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by former President Donald Trump, granted the state’s request to appeal and overturn Walker’s ruling.

The judges, who included Judge Barbara Lagoa, a former Florida Supreme Court judge appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, wrote that the upcoming Florida primary elections in August were too imminent for Walker to make such changes to the law.

“Because the election to which the district court’s injunction applies is close at hand,” they wrote, “... the state ‘has a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process ...’”

The ruling puts back in place the sections of the 2021 law that restricts drop boxes, created new requirements for voter applications, and banned interactions with voters in line. It also removes Florida from federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

Walker had written, “For the past 20 years, the majority in the Florida Legislature has attacked the voting rights of its Black constituents. They have done so not as, in the words of Dr. King, ‘vicious racists, with [the] governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,’ but as part of a cynical effort to suppress turnout among their opponents’ supporters. That, the law does not permit.”

Under the preclearance provision, Walker would have required any changes to the parts of the law ruled unconstitutional to be approved by his court.

It was first time the entire state, not including five southwestern counties, had been placed under preclearance as part of the Voting Rights Act going back to the 1960s.

But in their decision overruling Walker, Judges Lagoa, Kevin Newsom and Andrew Brasher wrote, “When the district court here issued its injunction, voting in the next statewide election was set to begin in less than four months (and local elections were ongoing). Moreover, the district court’s injunction implicates voter registration— which is currently underway — and purports to require the state to take action now, such as re-training poll workers.”

While Walker’s court “satisfied itself that its injunction — including the requirement that the state preclear new voting rules — was not too draconian, we are reminded that ‘[e]ven seemingly innocuous late-in-the-day judicial alterations to state election laws can interfere with administration of an election and cause unanticipated consequences,” they wrote.

The parts of the law put back into effect by the ruling include restrictions on drop boxes at early voting sites that made them only available during early voting hours, which in some counties, including Lake County, last only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Boxes at elections offices also had to be monitored by an employee at all times.

Also put back into effect was the requirement that third-party organizations needed to submit voting applications collected by their signature gatherers to the voters’ home counties or face fines of up to $1,000 per person, making it more difficult to register college students.

Finally, the controversial provision about “line warming,” in which providing aid to voters waiting in line to vote would have been considered as potential “solicitation,” was also placed back into effect. That provision had been watered down from its original language that would have banned giving out water to people in line.

The part of the law requiring voters to sign up for vote-by-mail every two years instead of four was kept in place by Walker’s initial ruling and had still been in effect.

“The district court’s determination regarding the legislature’s intentional discrimination suffers from at least two flaws, either of which justifies a stay,” the judges wrote. “And, although we think it presents a closer question, we hold that the district court’s determination that the Solicitation Provision is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad is sufficiently vulnerable to warrant a stay.”


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