U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the state should continue accepting voter registration papers through 5 p.m. Wednesday. He also set up a Wednesday morning hearing to consider a request by the Florida Democratic Party to keep registration open until Oct. 18 – a week after the initial deadline was set to pass.
"It has been suggested that the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics. Poppycock," Walker wrote in a 16-page ruling. "This case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted. Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy."
Still, politics swirled around the case less than a month before Florida could play a decisive role in the presidential race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Republican Donald Trump. The lawsuit was filed by the Florida Democratic Party after Gov. Rick Scott, who heads a super PAC supporting Trump, said he would not extend the registration deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Matthew lashed the state's eastern coast late last week, prompting tens of thousands of Floridians to evacuate. Local, state and federal officials urged residents to flee, arguing that staying behind could prove fatal. At least half a dozen deaths in Florida have been attributed to the storm and its aftermath.
Throughout his order, Walker indicated he was sympathetic to voters affected by the storm.
"These voters have already had their lives (and, quite possibly, their homes) turned upside-down by Hurricane Matthew," he wrote. "They deserve a break, especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution."
In the initial lawsuit, filed late Sunday, lawyers for the Democratic Party argued it was unfair for Scott to warn residents to follow evacuation orders ahead of the storm while at the same time refusing to give people more time to register after the storm displaced them and forced government offices to close.
The filing also said the effects of the decision not to extend the deadline will hurt some voters more than others. The party argues in its lawsuit that minority voters are more likely to register closer to the election, and that voters in parts of the state untouched by Hurricane Matthew will face fewer obstacles to signing up.
In a statement issued late Monday, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant cheered the decision.
"We are thrilled with today's ruling and we look forward to making our case on Wednesday for extending the voter registration deadline to October 18th," she said. "This is a win for the people of Florida."
The registration deadline has become a flashpoint in Florida, the nation's largest swing state, one month ahead of Election Day in one of the most heated presidential campaigns in recent political history. The Democrats' lawsuit was announced less than two hours before a testy debate between Trump and Clinton.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida's 10 Democratic U.S. House members sent a letter to Scott urging him to extend the deadline. But Scott had already signaled he was unlikely to do so.
"Everybody has had a lot of time to register," Scott said Thursday.
Clinton's campaign announced Monday morning that she and former Vice President Al Gore would focus on voter registration Tuesday during a campaign stop in Miami. President Bill Clinton is also set to promote voter registration on a Tuesday swing through Palm Beach, Lee and Pinellas counties.
A federal judge ordered a one-day extension in Florida's voter registration deadline and seemed ready to consider a longer delay against the backdrops of the recovery from Hurricane Matthew and one of the most heated presidential races in decades.