(CN) - A federal judge gave Florida residents until 5 p.m. Wednesday, October 12 to register to vote for the general election due to Hurricane Matthew's interruption of last-minute sign-ups.
In a complaint filed on Monday, the Florida Democratic Party accused Gov. Rick Scott and Fla. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, both Republicans, were forcing people to choose between their safety and their right to vote by encouraging them to evacuate in advance of the hurricane, but refusing to extend the deadline for voter registration.
The deadline was originally 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Prior to the storm's racing up the Florida coast last week, Floridians faced a "daunting and, indeed, life- threatening obstacle to registering to vote in the form of Hurricane Matthew, a massive and dangerous weather event that has threatened Florida with substantial damage and loss of life," the Democrats said.
After insisting 1.5 million residents evacuate, "Defendant Scott refused to extend the voter registration deadline for the very citizens heeding his orders to evacuate— forcing voters to choose between their safety and the safety of their families, on one hand, and their fundamental right to vote, on the other hand," the complaint states.
Hilary Clinton's campaign manager and several Florida lawmakers asked defendant Scott to extend the voter registration, but he refused, the Florida Democratic Party says.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted the plaintiffs an extension of the registration deadline on Monday, saying that Florida's statutory framework is unconstitutional.
"Hurricane Matthew not only forced many of those voters to evacuate the state, but also foreclosed the only methods of registering to vote: in person or by mail," Walker wrote.
"Because those aspiring eligible voters could not register, they could not vote in the upcoming election. As a result, Florida's statutory framework completely disenfranchises thousands of voters, and amounts to a severe burden on the right to vote," the judge said.
Walker noted that while the state while Scott doesn't have the power under the state constitution to unilaterally extend the voter registration deadline, Detzner certainly does.
"Florida law cloaks the Governor with general emergency management powers," Walker says. "But courts cannot use tunnel vision when construing statutes; rather, statues must be considered as a whole. And in the event of an emergency or disaster, the Governor is authorized 'to suspend or delay any election.' That does not imply the Governor is authorized to extend the voter registration. In fact, it implies the opposite."
Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Gov. Scott told Courthouse News that the state "will follow the court's decision and discuss with the Legislature possible amendments to current law during the upcoming legislative session."
In extending the deadline, Walker said, "These voters have already had their lives (and, quite possibly, their homes) turned up- side down by Hurricane Matthew. They deserve a break, especially one that is mandated by the United States Constitution. Ensuring that they can exercise their constitutional right to vote thus promotes the public interest."
Walker continued, "Many other states ... either extended their voting registration deadlines in the wake of Hurricane Matthew or already allow voter registration on Election Day. There is no reason Florida could not do the same."
Mark Herron, of Messer Caparello, P.A. in Tallahassee, represents the Florida Democrats and did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Detzner declined to comment, instead referring Courthouse News to Walker's ruling.
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