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Democrats say law resolves ballot signature fight

Agreeing with the state, attorneys representing national and Florida Democrats have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging how elections officials handle mismatched signatures on provisional and mail-in ballots.

Both sides in the case say a new law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday, fixes the disputed issues by establishing a uniform process for canvassing boards to compare signatures and extending deadlines for voters to “cure” ballots.

The new law also creates a way for voters who cast provisional ballots to “cure” signatures that don’t match those on file with elections officials.

The changes resolved concerns that led to a lawsuit filed by former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida and national Democrats, in anticipation of a statewide recount last year in Nelson’s re-election campaign against former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who eventually won the Senate race.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in November sided with Nelson and the Democrats, issuing a preliminary injunction and giving extra time to “cure” ballots.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures — with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection — passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in the November order.

In part to address Walker’s ruling, the Legislature included changes to the ballot-signature process in a sweeping elections package (SB 7066) that DeSantis signed Friday.

The lawsuit continued after the preliminary injunction was issued, but Walker put it on hold after the bill passed in May. He ordered both sides to respond within 10 days after the governor acted on the bill.

The plaintiffs’ motion for dismissal Tuesday mirrors a request made earlier by lawyers for Attorney General Ashley Moody and Secretary of State Laurel Lee.

The reforms included in the new law “track the specific defects that plaintiffs had identified in their claims” and upon which Walker’s order relied, the Democrats’ lawyers wrote in the motion.

The plaintiffs had alleged that the old law did not provide criteria for canvassing boards to make decisions about non-matching signatures, which “subjected voters to a standardless process that varied from county to county,” the lawyers wrote.

The new law, however, requires all signature match rejections to be made by a majority of the canvassing board and to be subject to a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

The new law also addresses another of the plaintiffs’ complaints by creating a way for voters who cast provisional ballots to “cure” signature match rejections.

And the law extended the deadline for voters to submit a cure affidavit to resolve signature discrepancies. Under the new law, voters who cast mail-in ballots and those who used provisional ballots have until 5 p.m. the second day after the election to submit the affidavits.

The plaintiffs also had challenged the absence of “guidelines to ensure that voters are timely notified of any signature mismatch determinations.”

The new law requires supervisors of elections to notify voters of non-matching signatures “as soon as practicable,” by mail, text message or telephone.

Because the lawsuit sought to strike down the old signature match laws, “which have now been amended specifically to address the defects that plaintiffs had identified and which formed the basis of their claims,” the state and national Democrats asked Walker to toss the case.

“Voluntary dismissal without prejudice is appropriate here as it is clear that the amendments to the signature match laws in SB 7066 were enacted in response to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, in order to address the specific defects identified by plaintiffs and cited by this court in issuing its November 15, 2018 order granting plaintiffs’ emergency motion for preliminary injunction,” the lawyers wrote.

While the omnibus elections package appears to have resolved the mismatched-signature issue, other provisions in the bill have sparked more legal fights.

A number of plaintiffs — represented by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — are challenging parts of the law aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons.

Under the new law, Floridians convicted of felonies will have to pay financial obligations related to their crimes — including restitution, fines and fees — before they are eligible to have voting rights restored.

The complaints, combined into one case by Walker, allege the legislation unconstitutionally “creates two classes of citizens,” depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many don’t even know about.

House Speaker José Oliva and other Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, maintain that the statute reflects the language of the constitutional amendment, which restores voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

Plaintiffs in a separate legal dispute are arguing that a provision in the new law requiring adequate parking at early voting sites could be problematic on college and university campuses.

Walker in 2018 issued a preliminary injunction that allowed campus early voting locations, ruling that a directive issued to elections supervisors by Scott’s administration was unconstitutional. In the November elections, that resulted in early voting on 11 campuses, with about 60,000 ballots cast, according to court records.

Under the new law, early voting sites “must provide sufficient nonpermitted parking to accommodate the anticipated amount of voters.”

But plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, allege the parking requirement could make it impossible to have early-voting sites on campuses.

In a motion filed last month, the plaintiffs argued that the bill “is aimed with laser-like precision at undoing this court’s standing preliminary injunction order, and again imposing an elections regime in which supervisors of election are effectively prohibited from offering early voting on Florida’s college and university campuses.”

Walker gave the plaintiffs until Monday to file an amended complaint, and the state has two weeks after that to respond.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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