TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge Thursday rejected Democrats' demands to push elections officials harder to process voter-registration forms, making it more likely that some early voters might have to cast provisional ballots.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who issued a ruling last week that extended the deadline for registering to vote because of Hurricane Matthew, sided with Secretary of State Ken Detzner in turning aside a request that Walker order elections officials to do more in processing the forms.
"There is absolutely no evidence, not one scintilla of evidence, before this court to show that Secretary Detzner is not doing his job," Walker said, crediting Detzner with "herculean efforts" to handle an unprecedented situation.
Walker said the state has had employees working overtime to try to deal with tens of thousands of registration forms that poured in following the extension of the deadline. The deadline was originally set for Oct. 11 but was extended a week. The judge ordered the longer registration period after Hurricane Matthew lashed the East Coast and prompted evacuation orders for 1.5 million Floridians.
"The secretary did that on his own (having employees work extra), clearly in a good-faith effort to comply with this court's order," Walker said.
Democrats wanted Walker to call for more forceful action to make sure that all new, legal voter registration forms were verified by Oct. 23, the day before early voting starts in 50 of Florida's 67 counties. They also wanted Detzner to be required to issue updated lists of registered voters as the process continues and for the judge "to clarify" that voters whose forms were still being verified could cast regular ballots, instead of provisional ones.
Voting-rights groups who had joined the Democratic Party in filing for the extension of the deadline declined to take a position on the new request.
Voters whose registrations aren't verified by the time they show up at the polls could be required to cast provisional ballots, which are held by elections officials for up to two days after the election in case the voter can be confirmed to be eligible. But Democrats argued that would leave too much to chance.
"When you vote a provisional ballot, it's not counted unless the canvassing board approves your ballot," Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer who represented the Florida Democratic Party, said after the hearing.
Detzner and local elections officials argued that it would be difficult to process the registrations any faster and dismissed as implausible other ideas like having poll workers call to check on the status of pending registration forms.
"We can't work people any harder, and we don't have any more people," said Bob Pass, an attorney for Detzner.
The Department of State has promised to have every eligible voter who turned in a proper form registered before Oct. 29. While most counties will start early voting Monday, they are not required to do so until Oct. 29.
According to data released by the state Thursday afternoon, more than 51,000 voters have had their registrations verified after Oct. 11. Another 21,000 are currently in the process of being verified.
Ron Labasky, who represented the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, told Walker during the hearing that the provisional ballot process works. He also stressed during the hearing and afterward that allowing voters of uncertain status to cast regular ballots while their registrations were still pending could cause problems.
"That ballot would be in a machine and would be counted," he said outside the court. "If an individual were indeed not a qualified, registered elector, they would not be entitled to do that, but the ballot could never be brought back. Once it's in the box, it is gone."
The Republican Party of Florida also intervened in the fight. Party Chairman Blaise Ingoglia issued a statement following the ruling that praised Walker's decision and cast the lawsuit as a partisan act.
"Today, the Florida Democrat Party got caught with their hands in the cookie jar," said Ingoglia, who doubles as a state representative from Spring Hill. "Not only did they try to use the courts to circumvent Florida voting laws, they put at risk the integrity of the election process and the autonomy of local canvassing boards."