Florida must seek court preapproval to change some voting laws, judge rules

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Florida must seek court preapproval to change some voting laws, judge rules

Florida cannot change certain voting laws without getting preapproval from a federal court for the next decade, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, saying the state has an ongoing and extensive history of discrimination against non-white voters that warranted extraordinary oversight.

US district judge Mark Walker put the state back under preclearance on Thursday as part of a 288-page ruling striking down new voting restrictions in Florida limiting the availability of drop boxes, and making it more difficult for third-party groups to register voters. “Florida has repeatedly, recently, and persistently acted to deny Black Floridians access to the franchise,” he wrote in his opinion.

Placing a state under federal preclearance is an extraordinary, and rarely used, action. A provision of the Voting Rights Act allows judges to place jurisdictions under federal supervision if there is evidence of intentional discrimination. Until Thursday, courts have not placed any states back under supervision since the supreme court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder.

“Without preclearance, Florida can pass unconstitutional restrictions like the registration disclaimer with impunity,” Walker wrote in his opinion. “Without preclearance, Florida could continue to enact such laws, replacing them every legislative session if courts view them with skepticism. Such a scheme makes a mockery of the rule of law. Under any metric, preclearance is needed.”

Florida is expected to quickly appeal the ruling. The state is likely to find a more favorable audience in the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit and the US supreme court, which have both looked skeptically on challenges to new voting laws.

Walker appeared to acknowledge the court’s hostility to voting rights in his ruling, writing “the right to vote, and the VRA particularly, are under siege”.

In addition to the preclearance requirement, Walker’s opinion blocked a provision in the law that required election officials to continuously monitor ballot drop boxes and made them less available outside early voting hours. He also blocked a requirement that third-party voter registration groups provide voters a disclaimer that they might not deliver their registration in a timely manner. He also blocked a provision prohibiting assistance within 150ft of a polling place. Those requirements, he said, ran afoul of both the US constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

The legislature enacted some of those provisions, Walker wrote, intending to discriminate against Black voters. Black voters are more likely, on average, to use drop boxes, he noted, and the legislature restricted their availability during times when Black voters were more likely to use them. Non-white voters are also more likely to rely on third-party voter registration groups than white voters and likely to wait longer in line at the polls, Walker noted. The legislature, he said, was aware of data showing the disparate impact.

“The Legislature would not have passed the drop-box provisions, the solicitation definition, or the registration return provision absent an intent to discriminate against Black voters,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for Florida governor Ron DeSantis did not immediately return a request for comment.

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