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| News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s election system suffered yet another black eye this week, after the state’s online voter-registration system repeatedly crashed before Monday’s deadline to sign up for the November presidential election.
The Sunshine State’s seemingly perpetual election-related snafus are the subject of ridicule, scorn and embarrassment, and a federal judge on Friday excoriated state officials for this week’s meltdown.
“Every man who has stepped foot on the moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Yet Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a 29-page order issued early Friday morning.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee extended the registration deadline until 7 p.m. Tuesday, after tens of thousands of users were unable to submit voter-registration applications through the online system in the hours leading up to the 11:59 p.m. Monday deadline.
Voter-registration groups quickly filed a lawsuit asking Walker to further extend the registration deadline, but the chief judge grudgingly sided with the state, saying another extension would sow even more confusion in an already-turbulent election cycle.
This week’s legal wrangling over voting came as county elections supervisors struggle to conduct smooth and accurate elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local officials are grappling with an unprecedented volume of requests for mail-in ballots, shortages of poll workers and precinct sites and voters’ trepidation about the Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“Every day is almost like an election day, as far as our volume of phone calls. So, there is a lot of confusion out there among voters, and I think we just need to, you know, move forward,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, whose tenure as an elections administrator dates back to Florida’s presidential recount in 2000, said in an interview this week.
NO FIXING WHAT ‘THE STATE BROKE’
Saying “this court cannot remedy what the state broke,” Walker reluctantly refused early Friday to give Floridians more time to register to vote.
Walker said the potential mayhem another extension might inject into the election cycle outweighed the damage done to prospective voters who were unable to access the system on Monday.
“This is an incredibly close call, but Florida’s interest in preventing chaos in its already precarious — and perennially chaotic — election outweighs the substantial burden imposed on the right to vote,” the judge wrote.
Walker, an acerbic jurist who frequently presides over elections-related lawsuits and has often ruled against the state, launched the decision with a sarcastic swipe at Florida’s continual elections blunders.
“Notwithstanding the fact that cinemas across the country remain closed, somehow, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. Just shy of a month from election day, with the earliest mail-in ballots beginning to be counted, Florida has done it again,” he chided.
Lawyers for Lee and Gov. Ron DeSantis argued that U.S. Supreme Court rulings establishing what is known as the “Purcell” doctrine advise courts to let states manage their own elections, especially when elections are looming.
During a hearing Thursday, Walker estimated that, even with Lee’s extension of the registration deadline to Tuesday evening, more than 21,000 fewer Floridians applied to vote on the online system than should have, when compared to registrations in the run-up to the deadline in 2018. During the extension, about 50,000 new voters submitted registrations, elections officials said in court documents.
“In sum, that potentially thousands of Floridians may not have been able to register because of the state’s voter registration website’s malfunction is certainly a substantial burden limiting the right to vote,” he wrote.
But the state’s interest in conducting an efficient and orderly election outweighs that burden, Walker concluded.
“(The) consequences of extending the deadline will reverberate across the entire elections process — forcing supervisors to divert resources to answering calls and processing new registrations — thereby hampering other important tasks, such as processing vote-by-mail requests and ballots, and administering early voting,” Walker wrote. “These are indeed weighty concerns.”
SCHOOLS GOTTA SCHOOL
Handing another victory to the state Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a ruling that said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran violated the Florida Constitution when he issued a July order aimed at reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nothing in the emergency order requires any teacher or any student to return to the classroom,” a three-judge panel of the appellate court said in the 31-page decision.
The panel flatly rejected the conclusions of Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who in August sided with teachers unions that challenged Corcoran’s order. The unions argued, at least in part, that the order violated a constitutional guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education.
The appeals court said the plaintiffs in the case lacked legal standing and were asking courts to decide “non-justiciable political questions.” Also the panel said the union’s arguments would require courts to violate the constitutional separation of powers and that they failed to show Corcoran’s order was “arbitrary and capricious.”
DON’T BOGART THAT LICENSE
In other legal action this week, the Florida Supreme Court made the unusual move of hearing a second round of arguments in a challenge to a state law aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The case could have a dramatic impact on the blooming pot industry in Florida, where the number of marijuana operators is limited, licenses have sold for upwards of $50 million and the number of patients exceeds 400,000 and continues to climb.
Wednesday’s arguments came in a legal challenge to a 2017 law that created a regulatory structure for the industry. Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, whose owners include prominent strip-club operator Joe Redner, alleges that the law improperly carries out the amendment.
Florigrown won in lower courts after initiating its lawsuit three years ago. DeSantis’ administration appealed an appellate-court decision that upheld part of a temporary injunction issued by a circuit judge.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in May but, in a rare move, ordered a new round of arguments focused on whether the statute equates to an unconstitutional “special law.” The Florida Constitution bars “special” laws, which, generally, are intended to benefit specific entities.
Representing the Florida Department of Health, DeSantis General Counsel Joe Jacquot argued the 2017 law allows applicants that meet certain criteria to vie for highly coveted licenses.
“This is an expanding bucket of licenses. This is clearly an open class,” Jacquot said.
But Florigrown attorney Katherine Giddings pointed out that the state has issued licenses to just 22 marijuana operators — each of whom previously had applied for licensure under a 2014 law authorizing non-euphoric cannabis, which preceded the passage of the constitutional amendment.
“This is definitely a closed class because no one can ever receive the same privileges that these have had,” she said. “This is everything but a free market. It has created a monopoly for a few entities. That is why the licensing scheme is inappropriate and arbitrary.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“This case is about how a state failed its citizens. In this case, potential voters attempted to perform their civic duty, to exercise their fundamental right, only to be thwarted, once again, by a state that seemingly is never prepared for an election. … This is a case about failure on the part of a civil servant, whose responsibility is to run an election system, that will cost thousands of potential voters their fundamental right to vote in the upcoming election.” — Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
— News Service assignment manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.