Fred Grimm

An ill wind (and partisan politics) threatened Florida voting rights

Citizens register to vote at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral on Wednesday. A federal judge ordered the extension of Florida’s voter registration by one week, until next Tuesday.
Citizens register to vote at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral on Wednesday. A federal judge ordered the extension of Florida’s voter registration by one week, until next Tuesday.

If this case had come out of a state other than Florida, the federal judge would have only been belaboring the obvious.

But Judge Mark Walker knew that Gov. Rick Scott was in sore need of some basic civics. “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live,” Judge Walker wrote, quoting the late Justice Hugo Black from a landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision. “Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”

In this case, Hurricane Matthew had contributed to the undermining. Hundreds of thousands of coastal residents had heeded Gov. Scott’s warning and fled inland as the storm menaced Florida. Government offices were closed. Mail delivery was disrupted. All this as the Oct. 11 registration deadline approached for Floridians hoping to cast ballots in the general election.

The Florida Democratic Party urged Gov. Scott to extend the voter registration deadline. Scott said tough noogies. “I’m not going to extend it. Everybody has had a lot of time to register,” Scott told reporters. “On top of that, we have lots of opportunities to vote: early voting, absentee voting, Election Day. So I don’t intend to make any changes.”

Of course, all those “opportunities to vote” aren’t much use to citizens who missed the registration deadline. So the state Democratic Party sued Scott and his handpicked secretary of state, a former beer lobbyist named Ken Detzner.

Scott and his beer meister already had a nasty reputation for trying to tamp down voter turnout. Back in 2012, they lost another federal lawsuit after their ham-handed attempt to “cleanse” the voter registration rolls of 180,000 supposed non-citizens before the presidential election. But when county election supervisors examined their list, most of those names — many of them Hispanic — actually belonged to eligible voters.

They also pushed through harsh new restrictions on voter registration groups. They cut back on the early voting opportunities for the 2012 general election. And since he has been in office, Gov. Scott has restored voting rights to only 2,200 convicted felons — compared to 155,000 restorations granted by Gov. Charlie Crist in the previous administration.

Scott, a fervent supporter of Donald Trump, has a rather obvious reason to tamp down late registrations. Daniel Smith, an elections data analyst at the University of Florida, reported that more than 156,000 new voters registered in the final nine days before the cutoff for the 2012 general election. Republicans were wildly outnumbered by Democrats and independents in the late surge. The latecomers were mostly young and minority voters — not a promising category for Republicans in general, and Trump in particular.

No wonder Scott didn’t want to extend voter registration for the 2016 general election.

Judge Walker, however, was not pleased that petty political considerations had trumped what he called “one of our most precious freedoms.”

“Literally, in excess of a hundred thousand aspiring eligible Florida voters were likely to have registered in the final week of voter registration,” he noted in his order dated Oct. 10. “Hurricane Matthew not only forced many of those voters to evacuate the state but also foreclosed the only methods of registering to vote: in person or by mail.” As a result, he said, thousands of voters would be disenfranchised.

Walker could find no good reason why Florida couldn’t do better by its voters. “Other states ravished by Hurricane Matthew extended their registration deadline to protect voters,” the judge wrote. “In fact, 15 other states ... even allow registration on Election Day.”

Walker wrote, “These voters have already had their lives (and, quite possibly, their homes) turned upside down by Hurricane Matthew. They deserve a break, especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution.”

He ordered Florida to extend voter registration until this coming Tuesday. Scott and Detzner accepted their latest courtroom humiliation without so much as a whimper. By Thursday, the new registration deadline had been added to the Florida Division of Elections website.

Judge Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012, added a small addendum to his order. “It has been suggested that the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics. Poppycock,” he wrote. “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.”

All this could have been avoided if in the wake of the storm, Scott had embraced voting rights with the same obsequious regard his administration has harbored for gun rights. It’s about time that ballots were considered as important to Florida as bullets.

Because voting rights are more than so much poppycock.