By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In a victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators, a full federal appeals court Thursday declined to take up a challenge to a 2021 Florida elections law that opponents contend discriminated against Black voters.
The decision effectively let stand an April ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that sided with the state on major issues in the case. The panel overturned much of a 2022 decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who said the law was passed with discriminatory intent.
The law included imposing new restrictions on mail-in ballot drop boxes and voter registration groups and prohibiting people from giving snacks and drinks to voters waiting in line to cast ballots. Walker blocked those parts of the law, but the appellate panel overturned his decisions on the mail-in voting and voter registration issues.
The Atlanta-based appeals court on Thursday rejected a request from voting-rights groups to rehear the case “en banc” — which would have meant the full court would have taken it up.
“What are the supposedly racist provisions that the district judge enjoined officials from enforcing?” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in an explanation of the decision Thursday. “They are unremarkable, race-neutral policies designed to bolster election security, maintain order at the polls and ensure that voter-registration forms are delivered on time.”
But Judge Charles Wilson wrote that the panel decision “impermissibly increases the difficulty for civil rights plaintiffs seeking the protections guaranteed to them by our Constitution.” He said the full court should rehear the issues.
“The panel opinion thus puts this court’s imprimatur on a law that a federal district judge already concluded intentionally targeted millions of Black Floridians’ rights to vote,” Wilson wrote in a dissent. “This imposition on the right of Floridians to vote their conscience in free elections is itself an issue of ‘exceptional importance’ warranting rehearing under our rules.”
DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law (SB 90) in 2021 as GOP leaders across the country pushed to make voting changes after former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.
While Florida had a relatively smooth 2020 election, Republican lawmakers argued the changes were necessary to make the state’s elections more secure. Opponents, however, argued the changes were targeted, at least in part, at Black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
The law, for example, placed additional restrictions on drop boxes used for vote-by-mail ballots. It required boxes to be manned by employees of supervisors of elections and limited their use to early voting hours. Democrats far outnumbered Republicans in casting vote-by-mail ballots in 2020.
As another example, the law required voter registration groups to return completed applications to elections supervisors in the counties where applicants live and imposed a 14-day deadline for submitting the forms. Opponents of the law contended minority voters more heavily rely on “third-party” voter registration groups.
Walker, who is based in Tallahassee, issued a 288-page decision in March 2022 that blocked such parts of the law.
“In sum, this court concludes that to the extent promoting voter confidence or preventing fraud may have motivated the Legislature in part, this court finds that the Legislature passed SB 90 with the intent to restructure Florida’s election system in ways that favor the Republican Party over the Democratic Party,” Walker wrote. “This court further finds that, to advance the Legislature’s main goal of favoring Republicans over Democrats, the Legislature enacted some of SB 90’s provisions with the intent to target Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”
But the 2-1 decision this year by the appeals court panel said Walker’s decision “does not withstand examination.”
“The district court relied on fatally flawed statistical analyses, out-of-context statements by individual legislators, and legal premises that do not follow our precedents,” Pryor wrote in the panel decision joined by Judge Britt Grant. “On the contrary, examining the record reveals that the finding of intentional discrimination rests on hardly any evidence.”
Attorneys for the Florida NAACP and Florida Rising Together filed a 41-page petition in May seeking a rehearing before the full court. The petition contended that errors “permeate” the panel’s decision, including that the majority did not properly consider evidence in the case.
“The stakes could not be higher: This case concerns whether the country’s third-largest state conducts free and fair elections uninhibited by what the district court found to be racially motivated voting restrictions,” the groups’ petition said.