Democrats on Thursday failed to persuade a judge to order state officials to more quickly process a surge of voter applications to ensure that more people can vote early without having to cast provisional ballots, which are less reliable.
After a three-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker gave a strong vote of confidence to Gov. Rick Scott’s top elections officer, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, in dismissing the Democrats’ request for a court injunction.
“The system is working,” Walker said.
The judge earlier granted the Democrats’ request to extend the voter registration deadline by a week, until Oct. 18 because of disruption caused this month by Hurricane Matthew. The storm posed monumental paperwork challenges for state and county elections officials in the hectic weeks before a presidential election in the nation’s largest battleground state.
The weeklong extension produced so many new voters that the state and counties are working nights and weekends to review a growing pool of new voters that surpassed 72,000 Thursday.
The state’s goal is to verify every new voter by Saturday, Oct. 29 — the last day that early voting can begin in Florida.
But most of the state will open early voting sites Monday, Oct. 24, the earliest date possible, and Democrats say some new voters will show up to vote before they are listed in the voter database.
Democrats wanted the judge to order the state to process all applications by Sunday.
Until they are verified, those voters will have a “pending” status that will force them to cast provisional ballots to be counted if they are later added to the rolls.
Democrats argued that forcing new voters to cast provisional ballots only because their forms are still in the bureaucratic pipeline is a form of disenfranchisement that makes Walker’s registration extension meaningless. But the judge disagreed.
The judge singled out the testimony of Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, who said that if a voter whose identity can’t be confirmed is allowed to cast a regular ballot, it wouldn’t be legal and it couldn’t be corrected.
“You’re not going to get that ballot back, and that could lead to some real issues,” said Latimer, who testified by phone from Tampa.
The other key witness was Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, who testified that state workers are being ordered to work “mandatory overtime” of up to 16 hours on weekends to process forms as fast as possible.
“This is a really important right,” Matthews told the judge. “We are devoting all the resources that we have.”
The judge also rejected a Democratic request that Detzner be ordered to provide lists showing the status of all new voters, so the parties can track down individual voters who are in limbo.
Detzner’s attorney, Robert Pass of the Carlton Fields firm, told the judge that the state will post numbers on its website instead. On Thursday, the state said that it has verified 51,074 new voters through Wednesday and that another 21,016 forms are pending.
“It may not be what you want, but to me, it’s a valuable piece of information,” the judge told the Democrats’ legal team.
The judge’s decision was a victory not only for Scott’s administration, but also for the Republican-controlled Florida Senate and the Republican Party of Florida, both of which joined the case Wednesday and praised Walker’s decision.
“Not only did they [Democrats] try to use the courts to circumvent Florida voting laws, they put at risk the integrity of the election process and the autonomy of local canvassing boards,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, the state GOP chairman.
Tampa Bay Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet.