A Hundred Thousand New Voters Have Judge Walker to Thank

 

Oct 30, 2016 by

As the deadline was approaching for Floridians to register to vote, a major hurricane was heading toward Florida. Gov. Rick Scott warned residents to take Hurricane Matthew seriously and to take proper precautions. He even ordered residents in some areas on Florida’s east coast to evacuate. By all accounts Gov. Scott handled preparations for the hurricane well.

The same cannot be said for how Scott handled the storm’s effect on voter registration.

With the storm approaching, voting rights groups, the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party asked Scott to extend the voting registration period to allow those distracted by the storm to be able to register. Scott said, no, they had plenty of time to register.

What? That’s crazy. Scott urged people to drop everything and prepare for the storm with just days left to register. How could they heed his words and make sure to beat the deadline?

Gov. Scott was wrong to deny their request. It came across as not only illogical but also highly partisan. It’s hard to fathom the contradiction of his actions relating to Hurricane Matthew. He stepped all over his positive image in the national spotlight with national scorn over limiting the basic and fundamental right to participate in elections.

Many people wait until the last minute to get things done in their busy lives—registering to vote appears to be one of them. The last week of voter registration is historically the heaviest. Various organizations planned voter registration drives that had to be canceled in parts of the state because of the storm.

Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida professor and state elections scholar, says the last few days of voter registration in a presidential election year are significant. Smith provided the 2012 registration numbers: During the last eight days over 150,000 Florida residents registered, with 64,012 on the last day alone.

After a hurricane of the magnitude of Matthew, Gov. Scott should have decided on his own to extend voting registration. He didn’t. And he denied requests to do so, calling those requests political. On the last few days of the registration period many families in Brevard, Volusia and Duval counties were still without power.

The Florida Democratic Party filed suit asking a federal court to extend the deadline by a week. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker initially extended the deadline by one day in order to conduct a hearing and then extended the deadline the full week requested.

In his decision, Judge Walker took a swipe at Gov. Scott, stating “It has been suggested that the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics. Poppycock. 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.”

I vastly underestimated how many potential new voters might emerge from the additional days. The numbers are still being verified but it looks like over 116,000 registrations took place thanks to Judge Walker’s ruling.

But Judge Walker wasn’t through being the hero of voter rights. This time the issue involved vote-by-mail ballots—which we used to call absentee ballots. In a separate case, the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit asserting that thousands of vote-by-mail ballots were not being counted because the signature on the ballot envelope didn’t match the signature on file.

Signatures can change over time, particularly among Florida’s elderly population. To complicate matters, each of the 67 counties has its own canvassing board and may have different standards to determine valid signatures.

And consider this – if a voter mails in his ballot without a signature, it can be remedied with an affidavit mailed to voters. If a canvassing board determines a signature does not match, the voter doesn’t get the same opportunity to fix the problem before Election Day and likely won’t know that his vote didn’t count.

This time the judge directed his ire on Gov. Scott’s appointed Secretary of State Ken Detzner. Judge Walker suggested that his office was trying to stall and said “this Court will not allow the Florida Secretary of State—a high-level officer of the State of Florida—to take a knee and deprive Florida citizens of their most precious right.”

Walker ruled that the state must notify the voter when a mail ballot has a questionable signature—before it’s too late. Thousands of voters who would have been disenfranchised will now have their votes counted.

It shouldn’t take lawsuits to force our state officials to respect our voting rights. To borrow a phrase from Judge Walker—that’s poppycock.

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