In an unusual late Sunday night court order [PDF], a federal judge declared Florida's rules for validating absentee ballots to be "illogical" and bizarre" and ordered that thousands of voters receive the option to correct a problem that might otherwise have resulted in thousands of unnecessarily and inappropriately rejected vote-by-mail ballots in the key battleground state.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Walker granted a preliminary injunction sought by the Florida Democratic Party to a GOP-enacted statute that allows election workers who lack training in handwriting analysis to reject absentee ballots on the basis of mismatched-signatures without first providing voters with the opportunity to cure the perceived defect.
Notice and a right to cure under Florida's irrational vote-by-mail system is afforded to those voters who fail to include any signature at all on their absentee ballots, but not to those judged to have submitted a signature that does match the one on file with their registration record.
As AP notes, "Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature in 2004 passed a law that said all vote-by-mail ballots that had mismatched signatures or did not contain a signature were to be tossed out. But then in 2013 legislators changed the law to allow people who turned in a ballot without a signature to fix the mistake prior to the election." That statutory change did not offer the same option to cure signatures believed to be mismatches.
"It is illogical, irrational, and patently bizarre for the state of Florida to withhold the opportunity to cure from mismatched-signature voters while providing that same opportunity to no-signature voters," Judge Walker wrote. "And in doing so, the state of Florida has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time"...
The court relied heavily upon the testimony of Leon County's renowned supervisor of elections, Ion Sancho. Sancho pointed to rigorous procedures he utilizes to ensure that no ballots are arbitrarily rejected, affording voters notice and an opportunity to cure either the absence of a signature or a possibly mismatched signature --- rigorous procedures that are followed in some counties but not in other counties where mismatched-signature ballots are simply rejected as "illegal".
"Judge Walker, citing the contentious 2000 Florida election where George W. Bush carried the state over Al Gore by 537 votes," according to AP, "said he needed to act because the current practice was enough of a burden to affect the outcome of an election and 'by extension, our country's future.'"
He stressed that citizens have a fundamental right not only to cast a vote but to have that vote counted. He harshly criticized Florida's Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner for his claim that he lacked the authority to compel county canvassing boards to apply a uniform standard to ensure that mismatched-signature ballots are not improperly rejected. Walker, who described the GOP-enacted scheme as "obscene," opined that Detzner "raised no defense on the merits (perhaps...because Florida's statutory scheme is indefensible)."
The court ordered Detzner "to issue a directive to the supervisors of elections...to allow mismatched-signature ballots to be cured in precisely the same fashion as currently provided for non-signature ballots."
The Obama-appointed federal judge also rebuked Detzner for attempting to slow walk his responses in the case, "so that he could use every second available to run out the clock".
Last week Florida Gov. Rick Scott (a Donald Trump supporter) and Detzner, who is appointed by the governor, faced similar wrath from the same judge, as he ordered the voter registration deadline in the Sunshine State to be extended by one week in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Scott and Detzner had refused to offer the extension, despite Scott's mandatory order requiring more than 1.5 million residents to be evacuated from their communities over what had been scheduled as the final week for voter registration in the state. In 2012, according to Florida election expert Daniel Smith on one of last week's BradCasts, more than 100,000 new voters were registered during that same period just before the voter registration deadline.
Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968) and a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. He has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing