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Federal appeals court finds Florida voting law not discriminatory

A split 2-1 decision by the 11th Circuit overruled a district court's finding that provisions in the Florida voting law discriminated against Black voters.

ATLANTA (CN) — Proponents of a recent Florida voting law got a win on Thursday after the Eleventh Circuit disagreed with a lower court finding that provisions of the law discriminated against Black voters.

The lower court used "flawed statistical analyses" and "out-of-context statements by individual legislators" in deciding the law was discriminatory, Chief Judge William Pryor wrote, reversing that lower ruling. In fact, there was "hardly any evidence" of intentional discrimination, the George W. Bush appointee argued.

Pryor and one other judge on the three-judge panel said that there was not sufficient evidence to suggest that Florida lawmakers intentionally targeted Black voters when they enacted new rules restricting drop boxes, limiting interactions with voters waiting in line and barring third-parties from delivering voter registration forms.

The restrictions were signed into law in 2021 by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis amid a nationwide effort by Republicans to prevent purported voter fraud after former President Donald Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was rigged against him by Democrats.

Civil rights groups — including the Florida State Conference of Branches and Youth Units of the NAACP, Florida Rising Together, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters — challenged the new provisions and won in lower court. In March 2022, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed with their claims that most of the law was racially discriminatory.

Walker, an Obama appointee, also ordered the state to obtain "preclearance" from the courts before making any further changes to voting laws for 10 years.

Thursday's appeals-court ruling reversed that order. U.S. Circuit Judges Pryor and Elizabeth Grant argued that much of the district court's decision relied not on facts showing discriminatory intent but instead on Florida’s long past history of racial discrimination.

"Florida’s more recent history does not support a finding of discriminatory intent," Pryor wrote. Recent voting laws cited by the lower court also offered "no support for its finding," he argued.

The district court's findings were made off legal errors and "clearly erroneous findings of fact" suggesting the changes were prompted by Black voters’ increased reliance on mail-in voting, the circuit judges argued.

Although statistics presented during the bench trial show that Florida Democrats relied on voting by mail more than state Republicans in the 2020 elections, "partisan discrimination must not be conflated with racial discrimination," they warned.

Instead, the judges agreed with assertions from the bill’s sponsors, legislative leaders, and Governor DeSantis that concern for election security — not racial discrimination — was the motivating factor behind the rules.

The judges also agreed that these concerns were valid and justified the new rules. During testimony in the bench trial, people other than the bill's sponsors expressed security concerns over drop boxes being vandalized. Officials from the Florida Department of State, which runs Florida elections, also testified that they received "frequent" complaints from voters about people not complying with a 150-foot nonsolicitation zone around voting locations.

Still, the circuit panel partially agreed with the district court's finding that rules prohibiting “engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter" were unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

On that front, the district court found the rules did not "provide anyone fair notice of what’s prohibited" or offer guardrails to "prevent arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.” The appeals court agreed that parts of that rule were unconstitutionally vague but allowed the overall rule to remain.

In a terse one-page dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote that she believes the district court came to its conclusion without finding any "reversible error." The lower court did not abuse its discretion in ordering the state to submit voting rules for preclearance, she argued.

The case now heads back to the Tallahassee-based district court to determine whether the drop-box and registration-delivery provisions "unduly burden the right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments."

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Politics

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