Politics & Policy

Florida Judge Rules Voter-Registration Deadline Must Be Extended

Residents of Beverly Beach, Fla., clean up in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, OCtober 8, 2016. (Reuters photo: Phelan Ebanhack)
Republican governor Rick Scott had argued that there was no need to extend the deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Monday night ruled in favor of the Florida Democratic party’s demand that the voter-registration deadline be extended in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Republican governor Rick Scott had refused to extend the deadline, saying that Florida law didn’t give him the power to do so and that it was unnecessary: “Everybody has had a lot of time to register,” he said. But Walker rebuked Scott — and the state’s relevant law — granting a 24-hour extension through the duration of the court hearings that may result in Floridians receiving a weeklong voter-registration extension.

The Florida Democratic party argued that not extending the voter-registration deadline would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit noted that Scott had advised 1.5 million people to evacuate their homes as the hurricane neared landfall, saying “this storm will kill you” and “time is running out.” The Florida Democratic party claimed voters were therefore forced “to choose between their safety and the safety of their families on one hand, and their fundamental right to vote on the other.”

Scott had said that the original voter-registration deadline of Tuesday had allowed residents more than enough time, and suggested that the demand to extend the deadline was politically motivated. He may be right: Florida is the largest swing state, and last election cycle  80 percent of the 156,000 Floridians who registered just days before the deadline were Democrats. The Democratic party would unquestionably benefit from an extended voter-registration deadline.

Walker sided with the Florida Democratic party, dismissing Scott’s comments about the lawsuit’s political motives as “poppycock.” “This case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted. Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy,” he said in the ruling.

Walker also criticized Scott’s defense that Floridians have numerous opportunities to vote, such as absentee voting and early voting. This, Walker said, is a “non sequitur” because absentee voting, early voting, and all other forms of voting are only possible if the resident is a registered voter in the first place.

Walker did concede that under Florida law, there is no provision allowing the governor’s office to alter voter-registration deadlines in special circumstances such as Hurricane Matthew. This finding led Walker to deem Florida’s existing statutes on the matter to be unconstitutional, since “there is no provision that extends the voter registration deadline in the event of an emergency.” Scott’s communication director Jackie Schultz said in a statement responding to the ruling that “the State will follow the court’s decision and discuss with the Legislature possible amendments to current law during the upcoming legislative session.”

#related#With the 24-hour extension, Walker estimated that an additional 100,000 people will be voting this November. Such a large number is likely because, as University of Florida professor Daniel Smith told Politico, the weekend immediately before a typical voter-registration deadline is “the final surge for voter registration, but it was the final surge of Matthew that wiped out the final weekend of this surge.”

The court hearing that decides whether Floridians have until October 18 to register to vote is Wednesday morning, and based on Walker’s sentiments, it is likely that the longer extension will be granted. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Floridians “deserve a break,” Walker said, “especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution.”

UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, Judge Walker extended the state’s voter-registration deadline until October 18. “No right is more precious than having a voice in our elections,” he said in the 40-minute court hearing. Attorneys representing Governor Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner did not argue against the extension, speaking only to acknowledge their presence, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Austin Yack — Austin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.

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