Vote-by-mail restrictions would unnecessarily burden voters, groups suing to overturn law say

An elections bill recently approved by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature would impose additional burdens on voters trying to submit mail-in ballots at drop boxes, attorneys for plaintiffs in a constitutional challenge to a 2021 elections law argued in a brief filed Wednesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Monday ordered attorneys in the lawsuit to explain the impact of the new bill (SB 524), which, in part, would change where elections supervisors can place drop boxes for mail-in ballots and sharply increase fines for third-party voter registration groups.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has not formally received the bill, passed by the House on March 9 after being approved earlier by the Senate, but he has indicated he will sign it.

Walker’s questions about the effect of this year’s bill came as he nears a ruling in the challenge to the 2021 elections measure (SB 90).

Parts of the 2021 law under scrutiny created new restrictions for drop boxes, which supervisors widely used in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for people to drop off completed vote-by-mail ballots. Under the law, supervisors must have the boxes staffed at all times and can only use the boxes during early voting hours and at early voting sites. Supervisors who violate the requirement face $25,000 fines.

Groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and Disabilities Florida filed a federal lawsuit challenging the 2021 law, arguing in part that it was intended to make it harder for Black and Hispanic Floridians to register to vote and cast mail-in ballots.

Under this year’s bill, drop boxes —- which would now be called “secure ballot intake stations” —- could only be used at a “permanent branch office of the supervisor” that meets criteria for branch offices used for early voting. The offices must be “open Monday through Friday, excluding legal holidays” for at least eight hours per day.

The bill “aggravates the effect” of last year’s drop-box provisions “by sharply restricting what locations can qualify as a ‘permanent branch office’ of the supervisor,” the plaintiffs argued in Wednesday’s brief.

Before the 2021 law, “supervisors could place drop boxes at eligible early voting locations, even outside of early voting days and hours,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.

“The combination of SB 524 and SB 90 would increase burdens on all voters, particularly voters of color and voters with disabilities,” the plaintiffs argued.

The plaintiffs pointed to testimony of Broward County Supervisor of Elections Joe Scott during a two-week trial in the case early this year. Scott said he intended to open several additional permanent branch offices to offer voters more options to drop off vote-by-mail ballots on the Monday before Election Day and on Election Day. Under state law, early voting ends on the Sunday before Election Day.

If this year’s bill becomes law, Scott “would be required to expend additional resources to staff each permanent branch office full time, all year round in order to offer drop boxes on just two key days during an election cycle. Other counties could be similarly affected,” the plaintiffs argued.

Lawyers for the state filed an 11-page brief Wednesday that did not address the issue of drop boxes and focused on parts of the elections measures dealing with third-party voter registration organizations.

“Senate Bill 524 does not appear to affect any other claims challenging the specific challenged provisions of Senate Bill 90,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a footnote in Wednesday’s brief.

The state honed in on part of this year’s bill that would do away with a provision in the 2021 law requiring third-party groups to provide disclaimers informing potential voters that their applications might not be turned in within a 14-day window imposed by the law.

Groups challenging the 2021 law have argued that requiring groups to provide the disclaimers will discourage people from registering to vote through such organizations, which frequently target Black and Hispanic prospective voters.

Under this year’s bill, disclaimers would be included on voter registration applications.

“If and when Senate Bill 524 becomes law, the court should dismiss all claims related” to the third-party groups disclaimer provision, the state’s lawyers argued in the brief, which was also signed by attorneys for the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The national GOP groups have joined the case as defendants.

The Legislature’s change to the voter registration form “shows the state’s commitment to ‘communicate the desired information to the public’ but to do so ‘without burdening a speaker with unwanted speech during the course of a solicitation,’” they argued.

The state’s brief also ignored part of this year’s bill that would increase penalties for third-party groups that don’t deliver voter registration applications to the state Division of Elections or to elections supervisors in the counties where the prospective voters reside within 14 days after being completed by the applicants.

The measure would increase fines for failing to adhere to the requirements from $1,000 to $50,000.

Before the 2021 law, third-party groups could deliver voter registration applications to any supervisor of elections.

If Walker doesn’t block the enforcement of the “registration delivery provision” in the 2021 law, the new bill “will make those provisions worse by allowing the imposition of a much more significant financial penalty” on groups that deliver applications to the wrong county, the plaintiffs argued.

The delivery restriction “substantially burdens plaintiffs’ registration activities in violation of the First Amendment,” their brief said.

“Increasing the potential fine for delivery violations by 50-fold will substantially increase this burden,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.




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