Voting rights groups want a federal appeals court to fight whether Florida’s 2021 election law made changes that discriminated against black voters.
Last week, attorneys for the Florida NAACP and Florida Rising Together filed a 41-page petition asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear a challenge to the law. The request comes after a divided panel of the appeals court in Atlanta overturned much of a district judge’s ruling against the law last month.
The petition alleged that errors “permeate” the three-judge panel’s decision, including that the majority failed to properly consider the evidence in the case.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher. this third case turns on whether the nation’s largest state conducts free and fair elections without interfering with what the district court found to be racially motivated voting restrictions,” the petition states.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law (SB 90) as GOP leaders across the country pushed for ballot changes following former President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat.
While Florida’s 2020 election was relatively smooth, Republican lawmakers argued the changes were needed to make the state’s elections more secure. Opponents, however, argued that the changes were aimed, at least in part, against black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
The law imposed new restrictions on mail-in voting and voter registration groups and banned people from serving food and drink to voters queuing to vote.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a 288-page ruling in March 2022 that blocked parts of the law.
“Overall, this Court concludes that, to the extent that promoting voter confidence or preventing fraud may have motivated the Legislature in part, this Court finds that the Legislature enacted SB 90 with the intent to reorganize Florida’s election system so that be beneficial to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party,” wrote Walker, who lives in Tallahassee. “This Court further finds that with the Legislature’s primary purpose of favoring Republicans over Democrats, the Legislature enacted certain provisions of SB 90 to target black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”
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But a 2-1 appeals court decision last month said Walker’s ruling “does not stand up to scrutiny.”
“The district court relied on fatally flawed statistical analysis, out-of-context statements by individual legislators and legal reasoning that does not follow our precedents,” the appeals court’s Chief Justice William Pryor wrote in a 79-page decision joined by Judge Britt. Grant: “To the contrary, a review of the record shows that a finding of intentional discrimination rests on almost no evidence.”
But Judge Jill Pryor, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that Walker “did not commit irreparable error in a thorough and well-reasoned manner.”
The law, for example, placed additional restrictions on the boxes used for voting by mail. It required that the boxes be collected by election supervisors and limit their use to early voting hours. In 2020, Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans in voting by mail.
As another example, the law required voter registration groups to return completed applications to election supervisors in the counties where the applicants reside, and set a 14-day deadline for filing the forms. Opponents of the law argue that minority voters rely more on “third-party” voter registration groups.
A majority of the appeals court panel found that such parts of the law were not intended to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters and did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution.
Last week’s request, known as an “en banc” hearing by the appeals court, came after lawmakers passed a bill in late April that included further restrictions on voter registration organizations. The Legislature on Tuesday officially sent the bill (SB 7050) to DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
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