The judge who extended Florida’s voter registration deadline has two more chances to shape the election in the days ahead.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker definitively placed his stamp on the 2016 vote Monday, even though federal courts were closed for the Columbus Day holiday.
Citing widespread turmoil caused by Hurricane Matthew, Walker ordered the state to accept voter registration forms for one extra day, through Wednesday, when he’ll hold a hearing and decide whether to extend the deadline further. The Florida Democratic Party is seeking an Oct. 18 registration deadline in a must-win state for Hillary Clinton.
Democrats criticized Scott, a Republican, for ordering millions of people to flee their homes, yet refusing to give them extra time to register to vote. That refusal, Democrats say, could disenfranchise tens of thousands of people.
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But even as the judge called it “wholly irrational” for the state to not help people join the voting rolls, he also dropped Scott as a defendant because state law does not give the governor specific authority to extend the registration deadline.
“He [Scott] does not appear to be a proper party here,” Walker noted.
That leaves Scott’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, as the sole defendant in the case.
Walker, 49, was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2012 and earlier practiced law with Steve Andrews, a flamboyant plaintiffs’ attorney in Tallahassee who has successfully sued Scott for violating the public records law.
A native of Winter Garden, an Orlando suburb, Walker is a “double Gator” with undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.
An Eagle Scout, he graduated No. 2 in his law school class with high honors at UF, according to a biography he provided to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, while working summers at the hometown Winn-Dixie supermarket.
After two years as an assistant public defender, he worked in Andrews’ firm for five years and in three other law firms before winning an open circuit court judgeship in Leon County in 2008.
He served less than four years on the state bench when Obama nominated him.
Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer said Walker is a protégé of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, for whom Walker clerked.
Meyer, a Democrat, has appeared often before Walker, and did not get a clear-cut victory in a 2014 case in which the Florida Education Association, a teacher union, challenged a state teacher evaluation law.
“Whether you win or lose, you’re going to get an exceptionally hard-working judge rending a reasoned opinion,” Meyer said. “He has a lot of promise.”
In his order Monday, Walker used a golf analogy to make his point that Florida has only one chance to get it right and protect the precious freedom of the right to vote.
“This isn’t golf; there are no mulligans,” Walker wrote. “This case pits the fundamental right to vote against administrative convenience.”
Noting that other storm-ravaged states extended their voter registration deadlines, he wrote: “It is incomprehensible that Florida could not follow suit.”
He also called it “poppycock” for anyone to suggest that extending the voter registration deadline was about politics.
In addition to extending the voter registration deadline, Walker will decide a second Florida case brought by the state and national Democratic parties. They have challenged a law that allows counties to reject mail ballots if a voter’s signature doesn’t match the signature on file.
Walker has called a hearing in that case for Friday at which he will call Tallahassee’s longtime supervisor of elections, Ion Sancho, as a court witness.
If Walker agrees with Democrats’ arguments in that case as well, hundreds or thousands of heretofore faulty ballots may be counted in November.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet