Federal judge sets new Saturday deadline for voters with disputed mail-in ballot signatures to fix the problem

Voting booths in Leon County
Voting booths in Leon County. Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix

A federal judge ruled that Floridians who had their vote-by-mail ballots rejected in last week’s election because the signature on their ballot doesn’t match the one on file now have until 5 p.m. on Saturday to correct the problem, a move that could affect between 4,000 to 5,000 voters.

The announcement comes hours before today’s 3 p.m. deadline for Florida’s 67 counties to turn in their vote tallies from a statewide machine recount. The judge says that any ballots that get fixed  because voters now have a chance to address signature problems will be included in a second statewide vote count total which happens at at noon on Sunday.

“Without this court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy. Rather, they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote,” Federal Judge Mark Walker writes in his order. And:

“What this case comes down to is that without procedural safeguards, the use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement.”

Both the Republican and Democratic Parties are now contacting voters who are affected by the ruling. Voters who have questions should direct them to their local Supervisor of Elections office.

Walker made his ruling late Wednesday night, after he heard more than five hours of testimony and debate about whether the Florida law that allows elections officials to reject vote-by-mail ballots is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is in a contested U.S. Senate race with Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Scott leads Nelson by 12,562 votes, or 0.15%. If the results after the machine recount stay around that same margin, a statewide hand recount would commence immediately, with the results due by Sunday at noon.

The judge noted that while Florida law now requires county Supervisors of Election to contact voters whose vote-by-mail ballots have been rejected, there’s a critical timing problem that deprives people of their Consitutional right to vote.

State law gives voters a chance to correct a signature problem by 5 p.m. on the day before the election. Yet local election canvassing boards may not even start reviewing problematic ballots until the day after the election – too late for a voter to meet the state’s deadline to fix their ballot.

Walker said that some other Florida voters – those who filled out so-called “provisional” ballots which are cast when an unforeseen problem crops up at the voting precinct – aren’t given the chance to fix the problem under state law.

Judge Walker wrote in his order that there are approximately 4,000 vote-by-mail ballots that have been affected by the issue, and believes that the supervisors of elections and canvassing boards throughout the state are “up for the task.”

The Scott campaign immediately announced it would appeal the judge’s decision and said it was confident that Scott would prevail in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Nelson campaign called Walker’s decision “a victory for the people of Florida and for the Nelson campaign as we pursue our goal of making sure every legal ballot is counted,” adding that the ruling “impacts thousands of ballots, and that number will likely increase as larger counties like Broward add their ballots to the total pool…We are taking several steps to ensure the rights of every Floridian are protected, and this is one major step forward.”

The Nelson campaign is running out of time to find enough avenues to overcome Scott’s lead. A separate lawsuit the campaign is pursuing against the state seeks to get a federal judge to extend the deadlines for the machine and hand recounts so that all 67 counties in the state can finish them on time.

 

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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