Judge Orders Information on New Elections bill

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge considering a constitutional challenge to a 2021 state elections law ordered attorneys Monday to quickly file briefs about the potential effects of a bill that the Legislature passed this month to make further changes in the elections system.

The bill (SB 524) had not been formally sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis as of Monday morning. But Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in a sharply worded two-page order, said he is drafting a decision on the 2021 law.

“Yet no lawyer for any party has alerted the court of imminent changes to the laws at issue before this court — though the parties appeared to have been actively monitoring the latest election legislation as it moved through the Florida Legislature these past several weeks,” Walker wrote. “Accordingly, the parties must file on or before (5 p.m.), Wednesday, March 23, 2022, an expedited supplemental brief addressing what impact, if any, Florida’s Senate Bill 524 would have on the challenged provisions and claims before this court in the event the governor signs the legislation into law.”

Walker did not specify issues that the attorneys would need to address.

The bill, which received final approval from the House on March 9 after earlier passing the Senate, drew heavy debate over issues such as creating an office at the Department of State to investigate alleged voting irregularities. DeSantis pushed for creation of such an office, as Republicans across the country have sought to revamp election laws to address what they contend is fraud.

The bill, among other things, also included changes involving organizations that work to register people to vote and collect applications. At least one of those changes involved an issue that has been part of the challenge to the 2021 law.

Under the 2021 law, the organizations are required to provide disclaimers informing potential voters that their applications may not be turned in within a 14-day window imposed by the law. This year’s bill would remove that requirement on the organizations.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have argued that the disclaimers will discourage people from registering to vote through such organizations, which frequently target Black and Hispanic prospective voters.

Testifying in January, League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon said the disclaimer “seems to have a negative impact” on prospective voters. Scoon described a situation in which a man had nearly completed the registration application before she showed him the disclaimer printed on a placard.

“He picked it up and looked at it. It froze him. He wasn’t happy. … He did an about-face,” Scoon said.

This year’s bill also includes issues such as ratcheting up financial and criminal penalties for violating elections laws, such as what has become known as “ballot harvesting,” which can include collecting and delivering vote-by-mail ballots for multiple people.

Another part of the bill would require county supervisors of elections to annually scour voter rolls for potentially ineligible voters in a process known as “list maintenance.” Under current law, supervisors are required to do list maintenance every other year.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights Florida and two dozen other groups filed lawsuits challenging the 2021 measure, arguing in part that it is intended to make it harder for Black and Hispanic residents to vote. Republicans contend that the 2021 law and this year’s bill are needed to maintain election integrity.

The 2021 law focused heavily on changes to voting by mail, an issue also addressed in this year’s bill. Among other things, lawmakers this year approved changing the name of “drop boxes” — where people can drop off vote-by-mail ballots — to “secure ballot intake stations.”

Walker heard more than two weeks of testimony in late January and February about the 2021 law.

— News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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