Federal judge roasts Florida for 'perennially chaotic' elections, but rules against extending the voter registration deadline further

click to enlarge Secretary of State Laurel Lee - Florida Department of State
Florida Department of State
Secretary of State Laurel Lee

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.

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.”

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