Florida elections chief agrees with judge on plan to fix faulty mail ballot signatures

In this 2012 file photo, a Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral.
In this 2012 file photo, a Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral. AP

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief elections officer bowed to the demands of a critical federal judge Monday and ordered counties to allow mail ballots with faulty signatures to be corrected in time to be tallied in the election.

Facing a court-ordered deadline, Secretary of State Ken Detzner directed 67 county election supervisors to give voters a second chance if a signature on a mail ballot envelope does not match the signature on file.

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U.S. District Judge Mark Walker dismissed Detzner’s objections and ordered the change Sunday, canceling a hearing and calling state voting laws “a severe burden on the right to vote.”

The judge said it makes no sense that the state offers a do-over to voters who omit a signature but offers no cure to voters whose signatures don’t match.

“The state of Florida has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters arguably for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time,” Walker wrote, criticizing the state for having “consistently chipped away at the right to vote.”

In a blistering opinion, Walker called state voting laws “a crazy quilt of conflicting and diverging procedures” marked by a “complete lack of uniformity.”

“It’s a good order,” said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. “Any law that results in more ballots being accepted is a good law.”

It marked the second time in a week that the judge, a nominee of President Barack Obama, sided with the Democratic Party in a voting rights case in the nation’s biggest battleground state, at a time when Donald Trump was raging against what he called a “rigged election.”

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A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released Monday showed Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 48 percent to 44 percent, with 4 percent for Libertarian Gary Johnson and a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The judge earlier extended the voter registration deadline for a week, after Scott refused, following severe disruptions caused by Hurricane Matthew.

Attorneys for Detzner resisted the court action and unsuccessfully argued in court papers filed Friday that Detzner was not the appropriate official to be under an order because ballots are counted by counties, not the state.

That legal tactic prompted an angry Walker to cancel a scheduled hearing and issue his extraordinary Sunday night ruling, three weeks before the presidential election.

The judge called it “at best disingenuous” for Detzner to say he wasn’t the proper party when he has issued voting directives to counties in the past.

Walker also excoriated Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature, which in 2004 eliminated a provision that allowed ballots with mismatched signatures to be counted.

Three years ago, lawmakers changed the law to allow a “cure” for ballots with no signature, but no such fix was included for cases of mismatched signatures, which Walker called “illogical, irrational and patently bizarre.” He also said “there is simply no evidence” that ballots with mismatched signatures were cast fraudulently.

In the Legislature, Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered an amendment to a major elections bill (HB 7013) in the 2013 session that included the mismatched signature fix required by the judge’s order, but Republicans rejected it on an unrecorded voice vote.

“Nobody brought it up as an issue,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who in 2013 chaired the Senate committee on voting legislation.

As for Walker’s order, Latvala said: “We just didn’t go as far as a liberal federal judge wanted us to.”

Nearly 2.5 million Floridians have requested mail ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

The five counties with the most mail ballot requests as of Monday were Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Broward, Orange and Hillsborough.

Election supervisors in Florida are elected to four-year terms in every county except for Miami-Dade, where Supervisor Christina White is appointed.

“Miami-Dade County voters may rest assured that our office will comply with any directive as appropriate,” said White’s chief deputy, Carolina Lopez.

Pinellas promotes voting by mail more than any other county in the state, and more than two-thirds of voters are expected to vote by mail.

Statistically, that makes Pinellas more likely than any other county to have mail ballots with signature defects.

The problem of signature variation is often attributed to physical or mental health issues with older voters, but Clark said voters most likely to return ballots with defective signatures in Pinellas are young people not aware that a ballot envelope is a legal document.

“It looks like they don’t take the time to write their legal signature,” Clark said. “It’s a scribble on the envelope.”

Clark said her employees will immediately notify every voter whose ballot has a signature defect, and problems must be fixed by 5 p.m. on Nov. 7, the day before the election.

The state could have appealed Walker’s order, but didn’t.

Scott defended Detzner and said in a statement released by his office: “[His] goal is 100 percent participation and zero percent fraud and he hopes everyone goes out to vote.”

Scott’s office noted he signed a bill that expanded hours, days and locations for early voting.

Election supervisors praised the judge’s decision.

“I’m proud of the judge,” said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections for 28 years in Tallahassee’s Leon County, who testified in the case Friday. “I’m proud of him for standing up to the kind of tyranny the Republican Legislature has subjected its citizens to. Voting is an incredibly powerful right that is the basis of every civil right.”

Tampa Bay Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.