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11th Circuit Reinstates Florida Voting Restrictions

May 6, 2022 by Dan McCue
11th Circuit Reinstates Florida Voting Restrictions
A voting station. (Photo by Dan McCue)

ATLANTA — The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated parts of a revised Florida election law that a lower court found intentionally discriminated against Black voters.

In its per curiam opinion, the three-judge panel said Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an Obama appointee presiding in Tallahassee, Florida, failed to presume state lawmakers acted in good faith when they passed the law.

“The district court never once mentioned the presumption. And while we do not require courts to incant magic words, it does not appear to us that the district court here meaningfully accounted for the presumption at all,” the opinion reads.

The panel also faulted Walker for looking too far back in Florida’s history to cite examples of acts of institutional and historic racism that took place there.

“At least on our preliminary review, the district court’s inquiry does not seem appropriately ‘focused’ or ‘limited,’” they said.

With that, the panel, composed of U.S. Circuit Judges Kevin Newsom, Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Brasher — all Trump appointees — lifted the injunction Walker put in place, meaning the law will be enforced during the state’s August primaries and longer, pending the ultimate outcome of the litigation.

The law, originally known as S.B. 524 and passed in the wake of the November 2020 election, limited the use of drop boxes for collecting ballots and placed restrictions to third-party voter registration. It also banned anyone from soliciting voters outside a polling place.

The law also creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State to vet claims of voter fraud or election irregularities before referring those claims to other law enforcement agencies for potential prosecution.

“Twenty years ago, nobody thought Florida was a prime example of how to conduct elections, but we have become a national leader by running the most secure elections in the country,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis when he signed the bill into law. “We need to do more to ensure our elections remain secure. We have ended ballot harvesting, stopped drop boxes and the mass mailing of ballots, and banned Zuckerbucks, and this bill will give us more resources to make sure bad actors are held accountable.”

Walker held these provisions of the law are unconstitutional and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

He also went a step further, requiring the state to get pre-approval from the court before enacting or amending certain election laws for the next 10 years, a requirement the 11th Circuit also struck down on appeal.

The challenge to the Florida law was brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida, which was represented by attorney Marc Elias. 

In a tweet following the ruling, he said, “While this is disappointing, this was a procedural loss based on the timing before the midterm. And, one of the provisions we successfully challenged was repealed by the Legislature as a result. We will continue the fight for full relief for 2024.”

Also commenting on the ruling was Bradley Heard, deputy legal director for voting rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

“Now that an order protecting Floridians from anti-voter laws is stayed, communities across the state will be forced to confront barriers to voting from S.B. 524, such as surveillance by a special police force, reduced access to drop-box and absentee voting, and greater risk of voter roll purges,” Heard said.

“It is wrong to force Floridians to face these barriers to voting that will especially diminish the voices in government of communities of color, women and voters with disabilities,” he continued. “The importance of protecting the fundamental right to vote against these barriers is exactly the reason why a federal court placed the state under preclearance.

“Given the assault by anti-voter politicians on the right to [vote] and equal voice in government of all Floridians, it is more important than ever that we keep pushing back against these barriers to voting. The Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund remains committed to defending the right to vote of all Floridians through advocacy, litigation and community engagement, and we encourage everyone in Florida to join us in this endeavor to protect democracy,” Heard  concluded.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and @DanMcCue

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