Parties fight over voter registration as storm nears


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As what Gov. Rick Scott called a “monstrous” storm barreled toward the Panhandle, Florida Democrats filed a lawsuit asking a court to extend Tuesday’s deadline for voters to register for the November elections.

The federal complaint came after the Scott administration gave elections supervisors in dozens of counties in the path of Hurricane Michael --- a potentially devastating storm expected to make landfall Wednesday --- more time to register voters.

Late Monday night, Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive authorizing elections supervisors whose offices were closed Tuesday “to accept paper voter registration applications for the 2018 general election on the next day that his or her office is reopened.”

“This will ensure that each supervisor of elections office has the same amount of days to register voters at their offices,” Detzner wrote.

Voters also have the option of registering online until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, a deadline that wasn’t extended, Detzner said in the memo.

But in the lawsuit filed Tuesday against Detzner, lawyers for the Florida Democratic Party argued “his ‘solution’ is insufficient and confusing.”

“It does not adequately protect the voting rights of Florida citizens who cannot register to vote by the October 9 registration deadline,” party lawyers Mark Herron and Marc Elias wrote in the 17-page complaint asking a federal judge to issue an injunction banning Detzner from enforcing the Tuesday deadline and extending the voting-registration period until at least Oct. 16.

Unless the request is granted, “there is a strong likelihood that the right to vote of thousands of Floridians, including plaintiffs’ members and constituents, will be severely burdened (if not eliminated entirely) in the 2018 general election,” the lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit came as Scott, who is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November, held news conferences Tuesday in Northwest Florida and further south on the Gulf Coast and urged residents and visitors to prepare for what the governor warned could be “the most destructive storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in decades.”

Scott “is focused on keeping Floridians safe as a major hurricane rapidly approaches our state,” spokesman John Tupps said in an email, noting that Scott on Monday directed the Department of State to extend the voter registration deadline in counties where supervisors’ offices closed early because of Michael.

“This means that each county will have the same amount of days to register voters. The governor believes that every eligible voter should be able to register to vote and Floridians can go online right now to do so. In fact, nearly 10,000 people have registered to vote online since midnight,” Tupps wrote.

As Michael churned Tuesday afternoon toward the Sunshine State, Democrats used Scott’s handling of the registration deadline to try to fill campaign coffers in advance of the Nov. 6 general election.

“We just filed a lawsuit to extend today’s voter registration deadline in Florida to protect the voting rights of those impacted by Hurricane Michael,” an email, urging supporters to “DONATE NOW,” read. “Rick Scott fought us on this in 2016 --- we didn’t back down then, and we won’t back down now. Our legal fund needs your support today if we’re going to win this fight!”

Throughout the day, Democratic officials issued press releases calling for an extension of the registration deadline.

But Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia condemned Democrats for politicizing the storm as coastal residents girded themselves for what could be a deadly hurricane.

“It is absolutely reprehensible that the Florida Democrats would play political games on the eve of a potentially devastating hurricane, and waste taxpayer money by filing this lawsuit,” Ingoglia, who is also a state representative, said in a statement.

Scott’s administration already extended the registration deadline by a day in affected counties, Ingoglia said.

“Only an organization that is playing politics with people's lives would ask for voter registration to be extended by a full week in this state’s most densely populated Democrat areas, almost nine hours and a time zone away,” he said.