Legal skirmishes over Florida elections were being fought on two fronts Friday, as a pair of federal court cases underscored the crucial role the state could play in next year’s election.
No detail is trivial, as Republicans and Democrats battle over the order of names on ballots and who ultimately is eligible to cast those ballots, a contentious point in a state that has had myriad controversies over nationally important elections decided by razor-thin margins.
Florida’s Republican governor filed an appeal Friday in a bid to lift a federal judge’s temporary order allowing some felons to regain voting rights despite failing to settle unpaid fines and other legal debts.
Gov. Ron DeSantis also said he would appeal a ruling handed down by another federal judge who sided with Democrats on the seemingly trivial matter of name order on ballots.
On that issue, Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida found it a significant matter.
In his Friday ruling, Walker, an appointee of President Barack Obama, agreed that a candidate whose name appears first has an undue advantage. Noting Florida’s history of close elections, he said that “systematically allocating that small but statistically significant advantage” would be constitutionally unfair.
Under current law, President Donald Trump — assuming he wins the Republican primary and remains in office — would automatically appear at the top of the ballot, regardless of his eventual Democratic challenger in 2020.
That’s because top ballot billing goes to the party of the state’s governor. Republicans have now occupied the governor’s office for two decades.
Among the judge’s key questions in deciding his ruling was whether the Constitution could allow the state “to put its thumb on the scale and award an electoral advantage to the party in power.”
The answer, Walker ruled, is simple: “It does not.”
The governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferre, also had a simple reply: “We will appeal.”
Not surprisingly, Democrats praised the judge’s decision.
“For too long, Florida Republicans have used unconstitutional tactics to hold onto power. This federal court victory returns the power to hardworking Floridians and now all candidates will have to campaign on a more level playing field,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Florida’s name-ordering law dates back to 1951, when Democrats were in power.
The judge ordered the state to come up with a new ballot order scheme in the coming weeks but didn’t specify what that scheme should be.
In a statement, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, an appointee of the governor, said her agency would comply with the court’s order pending an appellate review.
“The Department of State will continue to provide guidance and direction to Florida’s 67 elected supervisors of elections as the legal challenge continues,” she said.
On an arguably more thorny matter, the governor’s office said it would also appeal another federal judge’s ruling — this one on Amendment 4, last year’s voter-approved measure that returned voting rights to Florida’s 1.4 million felons who are no longer in custody.
At question is whether the payment of fines and other fees is required before a sentence can be deemed complete, as the Republican-controlled Legislature asserted in a bill later signed by DeSantis.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that the state must give back voting rights to the felons who challenged the state law, until the legal merits of the legislation could be fully adjudicated. In issuing his order, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said Florida elections officials would be imposing an unconstitutional poll tax if it required felons to first pay fines and other fees — even if they can’t afford to — before being allowed to vote.
Hinkle called the situation an “administrative nightmare” and urged both sides to quickly resolve the matter and help bring clarity to the 436,000 former felons in Florida — some already registered to vote — who will remain ineligible to vote because of the legislative intervention.
The governor’s spokeswoman said the appeal would help resolve the dispute.
“Appealing this order will provide quicker finality and certainty, allowing enough time to implement any protections and procedures for the restoration of voting rights prior to the November General Election,” Ferre said in a statement.
Advocates for felon voting rights expressed disappointment at the governor’s decision to appeal based on the governor’s earlier vow to seek “a pathway for those who are indigent and unable to address their outstanding financial obligations.”
“We thought we had a real opportunity for all of us to do some work to fix the problem,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.