(CN) - In a courtroom victory for Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a federal judge ruled Thursday that Florida's handling of mail-in and provisional ballots in the midterm election was deficient and disenfranchised voters.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found that Florida does not give people a reasonable opportunity to lodge a challenge when their mail-in or provisional ballots are rejected because of signature-matching issues.
The judge ordered that affected voters have until 5 pm Saturday to "cure" their mail-in and provisional ballots. He noted that "across 45 of Florida’s 67 counties, there are more than 4,000 ballots" that were rejected due to purported signature mismatches.
The ruling came ahead of a 3 p.m. deadline for Florida counties to report the results of their "machine" recounts of votes. Sixty-six counties made the deadline; Palm Beach County did not. Instead, it resubmitted the preliminary results it tabulated last Saturday.
Walker's order was handed down in a lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida, brought by Sen. Nelson's campaign. Nelson's attorneys had alleged that minority voters were being disproportionately disenfranchised by the state's signature-matching process.
Three-term incumbent Nelson is locked in a tight race against parting Florida Gov. Rick Scott for the U.S. Senate seat.
Scott on election night appeared to have won by a comfortable margin, but as vote counts continued to trickle in from Democratic-leaning Palm Beach and Broward counties, his lead over Nelson dropped to less than 16,000 votes.
Recounts were ordered for the Senate race and several other Florida midterm contests, including the race for the governorship between avid Trump-supporter Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum. DeSantis is holding a tight lead over Gillum (still wider than the margin in the Senate race).
Part of an evergrowing web of litigation over the Florida midterm election, Judge Walker's Thursday order found merit in Nelson's claim that the state had a haphazard signature-matching process.
The judge wrote that the canvassing boards who are tasked with matching voter's election-time signatures to signatures in county records "are staffed by laypersons that are not required to undergo formal handwriting analysis, education or training."
Moreover, the judge wrote, Florida has no formalized statewide procedure for canvassing boards to evaluate signatures.
The court order identified what the judge perceived as large gaps in voter protections under Florida election law once a mail-in or provisional ballot is rejected.
The judge found, for example, that state law improperly places a pre-election cutoff time for mail-in voters to cure alleged signature-mismatch issues. If a voter's mail-in ballot is received on election day and is found to have a mismatched signature, the voter is left with little recourse to ensure his or her vote is counted, the judge found.
What's more, there is no "cure period for provisional ballots rejected based on signature mismatch," the judge wrote.
"Without this Court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy. Rather, they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote. What is shocking about Florida law is that even though a voter cannot challenge a vote rejected as illegal, any voter or candidate could challenge a vote accepted as legal," the ruling reads.
The judge suggested that Florida ought to consider adopting the legal framework of other states like Oregon, where voters have several days after the election to cure problems with their ballots.
On the other side of the case were defendant Ken Detzner (named in his role as Florida Secretary of State), and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an intervenor defendant.
The Secretary of State had in vain tried to convince the court that the Nelson campaign should have addressed its concerns about the signature-matching process before the election. The Secretary argued that "changing the rules ... in the middle of an election is fundamentally wrong" and undermines the State's interest in administering voting law on the books.
"The Plaintiffs’ request for extraordinary relief is too late. Instead of resolving grievances before the election, the Plaintiffs waited until two days after ballots had been cast to sue," the Secretary contended.
Judge Walker rejected the argument, finding that "it is not clear" that the legal doctrine invoked by the Secretary (the doctrine of laches) applies when a plaintiff seeks prospective relief for ongoing Constitutional violations.
He also rebuffed the Republican committee's attempts to bar Nelson's lawsuit on the grounds that his claims should have been raised in Fla. Democratic Party v. Detzner, a comparable piece of litigation filed in 2016 over Florida's ballot signature-matching process.
That 2016 case led the state to reform its election law to provide more voter protections in the event that a ballot is rejected because of a signature mismatch.
But according to Judge Walker, the changes to the law were "woefully inadequate" to prevent disenfranchisement.
"This case involves a different election that was conducted using amended state law election procedures. ... This is not a situation where the Plaintiffs are trying to take a second bite at the apple," the order states.
In a separate decision, Judge Walker refused to extend the 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for counties to report the results of their machine recounts. He said the factual record was not sufficiently developed for him to grant Nelson's request for an urgent extension.
"This Court must be able to craft a remedy with knowledge that it will not prove futile. It cannot do so on this record. This Court does not and will not fashion a remedy in the dark," Walker wrote.
As the deadline approached, Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told reporters that outdated equipment delayed vote tabulation in her populous county.
Bucher and Broward Supervisor of Election Brenda Snipes have been in the national spotlight since Rick Scott insinuated that their counties were the site of some kind of fraud aimed at stealing the election from him.
Scott has made public statements alleging that there was malfeasance in the vote-counting process that led to the dropoff in his lead over Nelson.
"Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant voter fraud in Palm Beach and Broward counties," he said in a post-election press conference. "I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida."
So far, Scott's lawsuits over the election have not included claims that sprawling. They've focused largely on purported noncompliance with election law deadlines and ballot-review protocols in Broward and Palm Beach.
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