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Judge rejects challenge to mail-in ballot rules

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge Friday refused to strike down two provisions of Florida elections laws dealing with deadlines for mail-in ballots to be received by county elections offices.

Under state law, domestic mail-in ballots must be received by elections offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day. However, elections officials can count overseas ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received within 10 days of the election.

The VoteVets Action Fund, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee argued that the shorter time period for domestic mail-in ballots imposes an undue burden on the right to vote, and the longer time period for the overseas ballots deprives domestic mail-in voters of equal protection.

But U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected the arguments, writing that the state’s “important regulatory interests” are generally sufficient to justify an election law that “imposes only reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions upon the constitutional rights of voters.”

The lawsuit is one of at least eight challenges working through the federal court, as a statewide manual recount in the race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott is underway.

Scott led the race by about 12,500 votes heading into the manual recount.

In the lawsuit focused on the mail-in ballot deadlines, Walker noted that some voters' ballots may not be counted due to the “vagaries of the mail system," but the state needs to have “some kind of deadline” after which ballots may not be counted.

“The fact that there might be problems with the mail does not outweigh the state’s important interest in delineating finality in elections. To hold otherwise could call into question the entirety of the vote-by-mail system itself,” he wrote.

At least eight other states allow mail-in ballots to be processed after Election Day or allow election officials to take the postmark date on the ballots into consideration.

The longer deadlines are “unquestionably fairer, better systems,” the judge found.

“But a later or more lenient deadline in other states may not a constitutional violation make,” he wrote.

A “uniformed voter on a desolate, isolated outpost in Afghanistan” might take weeks to receive “care packages” from family members in the U.S., and it might take as long for letters from the soldier to be received back home, Walker wrote.

“The same holds true for the uniformed voter’s ballot,” he said.

Instead of depriving domestic voters of the opportunity to vote on equal terms with those who are overseas, the law gives overseas voters the opportunity to vote on equal terms with domestic voters, Walker decided.

“These rules have been used for over a decade, and to enjoin the use of them now would create a substantial hardship on the defendants and perhaps undermine the electoral process,” the judge concluded.