Judge lays down law in Bill Nelson ballot lawsuit

Federal courthouse in Tallahassee

A federal judge says he will subpoena Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley to testify at this Wednesday’s hearing in Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson‘s lawsuit to count votes on provisional and mail ballots invalidated because of mismatched signatures.

“This court will elicit testimony from Mr. Earley to provide an example of one process a county supervisor of elections and county canvassing board use to determine whether a provisional or vote-by-mail ballot should be rejected for a signature mismatch,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a procedural order entered Sunday night.

As of the first unofficial returns on Saturday, Nelson was behind 12,562 votes to Republican challenger Rick Scott — the state’s term-limited Governor — out of nearly 8.2 million cast. That margin of victory is within the 0.5 percent needed to trigger a statewide mandatory machine recount, which many counties began over the weekend.


“This court has done the same in the past and anticipates covering similar ground with Mr. Earley as it did in 2016 with the prior Leon County Supervisor of Elections, Mr. Ion Sancho,” he added.

That refers to a case resulting in his ordering that Florida voters be notified before Election Day and given a chance to prove who they are if their signatures on a vote-by-mail ballot did not match their voter registration forms.

As counties are starting or already in the middle of a mandated machine recount, Nelson’s federal lawsuit wants such mismatched signatures ballots to be counted.

Following Walker’s ruling, lawmakers passed and Gov. Scott signed into law a measure that lets voters “complete and submit an affidavit in order to cure (a) vote-by-mail ballot until 5 p.m. on the day before the election.”

But Nelson’s complaint against the state argues that rejecting ballots for mismatched signatures in the first place is unconstitutional.

That’s because it disenfranchises voters through a “demonstrably standardless, inconsistent, and unreliable signature matching process that has been shown to result in the disproportionate rejection of (vote-by-mail) and provisional ballots cast by ethnic and racial minorities, as well as young, first-time voters.”

Walker also directed Maria Matthews, director of the state’s Division of Elections, to be “prepared to discuss” several issues at the hearing:

— “Figures regarding the number of provisional and vote-by-mail ballots that have been rejected in the 2018 General Election for having a mismatched signature, by county.

 — “Any guidance the Division of Elections provides to county supervisors of elections and county canvassing boards to use to determine whether a provisional or vote-by-mail ballot should be rejected for a signature mismatch.

— “Whether provisional or vote-by-mail ballots that have been rejected in the 2018 General Election for a signature mismatch have been segregated and thus are easily accessible.”

Walker also asked lawyers to argue whether a state law that “provides electors and candidates a mechanism to challenge ballots as allegedly illegal—but does not provide electors and candidates an opportunity to challenge rejected ballots as legal—violates the First and/or Fourteenth Amendments.”

This order expresses no view on the ultimate issues to be decided, instead simply provides notice so that each side may be heard and prepared,” Walker wrote. 

The hearing will be in Tallahassee’s federal courthouse at 1 p.m. Wednesday, the day before counties must turn in results of machine recounts to the state.

The previous judge assigned the suit, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, took himself off the case because his “brother is a party to a lawsuit involving (Gov. Scott).”

Walker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, earlier this year became chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, which includes the Panhandle and Big Bend.

Walker has a history of ruling against the state on voting rights: Besides his 2016 injunction on ballot signatures, earlier this year he told state officials to overhaul Florida’s process of restoring felons’ voting rights, a move later reversed by a federal appeals court.

And he granted a preliminary injunction in a federal lawsuit over the state’s prohibition on early voting at college and university campuses.

Jim Rosica

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Bob Hightower

    November 11, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    Wow! Should be an interesting hearing… Thanks for breaking this story.

  • Bob Hightower

    November 11, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    Jim- Do you know if Scott’s lawsuits are filed in Federal or state courts? It would be nice to have all pending Scott-Nelson lawsuits handled by one judge, not multiple judges. Preferably here in TLH….Thanks. BH

  • Spark340

    November 12, 2018 at 5:50 am

    Seems to me this is a completely state issue and the involvement of a federal court cannot be considered until all state level remedies are exhausted.

  • Jsyne

    November 12, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Every vote should be counted period!
    Yes, if someone else signed, that vote should not be counted – in almost 100% of these cases, signature isn’t perfect! Those votes should be counted! Write your name 10 times – is every one of those signatures exactly the same?
    This is meant to be voter suppression and has zero to do with voter fraud which is non existent!

    • Martvol

      November 12, 2018 at 9:04 am

      These are ballots by mail. A care giver, child, spouse, or someone else may have filled them out. That would be voter fraud. I am against any vote that isn’t done in front of, at the very minimum, a notary public. These are usually free at any bank, police station, and many other places.
      If the signature doesn’t match, they must be thrown out.

      • Chicky

        November 12, 2018 at 3:36 pm

        My dad can no longer stand in line or tolerate crowds. We got his mail ballot. He made his picks I filled in the circle. He signed. I sealed and mailed. I’m sure his signature isn’t a perfect match to the one he signed in 2002 but it was accepted. They made ME resign at the polls because my signature didn’t match my drivers license even though I was standing right in front of them with my license. It’s a voter suppression ploy and it’s time to stop it.

    • Margaret Mulcahy

      November 12, 2018 at 9:36 am

      Beg to differ, undercover and. Original poll volunteers have caught many voters trying to vote 3/4 going to different poll locations, especially in Florida, California,and Florida,Arizona! Also one undercover overheard &videoed poll volunteer telling people come on in without proper ID and registrations

      • Shel

        November 12, 2018 at 10:45 am

        Have you involved law enforcement? What was the outcome? If not, why not?

      • garritt

        November 12, 2018 at 12:15 pm

        can you spell fake news

      • Chicky

        November 12, 2018 at 3:39 pm

        That’s nonsense and you know it. Why tell lies?

    • TheRealJR60

      November 14, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      Nelson argues that untrained, yet well intentioned, election workers determined the validity of signatures on the ballots in question. He offers no examples of voter suppression, but only questions the state’s standards and laws. There’s no voter suppression.
      Unless Florida law specifically violates the Voter’s Right Act the Federal court should issue no ruling.

  • Patricia K. Jones

    November 12, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Regarding my personal signature, there’s a good number of years that’ve passed since I first signed a voting signature card. I’m 65 years old now, a lot older than when I first signed and I have arthritis, which no doubt has altered the way I write. From signing a personal check for my bills to placing it on the outside envelope of my sealed mail-in ballot, my signature may be similar but it is certainly after all this time, altered somewhat. The ONLY thing that hasn’t changed is my fingerprint. Why isn’t That used for true identifications? With a prior job security clearance, I’m listed with the FBI, my prints signify that I’m me, and nooooooobody else. Let’s get with the times folks!! There’s no reason for ineptitude when it comes to casting a ballot; this is the USA for Pete’s sake!!! It’s 2018!!! 🙄 WAKE UP AMERICA!!!

  • Bob

    November 12, 2018 at 9:16 am

    Equal protection under law can be effectively challenged in either Federal or state court, as both US Constitution and Florida Constitution include equal protection guarantees. So, Federal court may have jurisdiction on equal protection issues. Possible that Scott’s actions only deal with state issues, though sometimes state actions can be removed to Federal courts if there are also Federal issues.

  • Margaret Mulcahy

    November 12, 2018 at 9:41 am

    How about going door to door”like Oprah” did in Georgia, verifying the person and asking who they voted for and let them resign ballot. 1000 ppl may say no, I didn’t vote at all!

    • Margaret Mulcahy

      November 12, 2018 at 9:44 am

      How about going door to door”like Oprah” did in Georgia, verifying the person and asking who they voted for and let them resign ballot. 1000 ppl may say no, I didn’t vote at all! BETTER YET! HOW BOUT NOT COUNTING LATE VOTES PERIOD! If I overslept or was in hospital even,do you think they’d open polls let ME vote late?

  • Donna

    November 12, 2018 at 11:02 am

    To the person who said use fingerprint to show who’s who. BUT what about ppl who who born w/o limbs, or got in an accident, or have fake limb(s) (I’m sorry I can’t remember how to spell the correct term)? To the other person who said they have arthritis which changes handwriting which is correct.

  • Kar goll

    November 12, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    I think mismatched signatures are about wrong names….bill James smith signed as william john smith….I know in california we have to sign the name as exactly on ballot…..not nicknames or initials

  • david

    November 12, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    How can they have a recount when all the votes have not been counted first….something stinks in Florida again….and it is called Scott.

Comments are closed.


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