Voting rights groups press on with their challenge to Florida’s voter registration handwritten signature requirement they say violates the Civil Rights Act

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Vote By Mail sign, Florida
Vote By Mail and voter registration sign in Pinellas County. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Oct. 2018).

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Four advocacy groups have gone to an appeals court after a federal judge rejected a lawsuit challenging a Florida requirement for “wet” signatures on voter registration forms.

Vote.org, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, the Florida NAACP and Disability Rights Florida filed a notice last week that was a first step in appealing the Oct. 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor. As is common, the notice did not detail arguments the groups will make at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The challenge involves a state requirement that paper voter registration applications include what is known as a “wet” signature — a handwritten signature in ink. The groups contend the requirement violates part of the federal Civil Rights Act barring the rejection of voter-registration applications for reasons “immaterial” to determining whether people are qualified to vote.

As an example, the groups said paper applications would be rejected if submitted with electronic signatures.

“Florida’s wet signature requirement requires state election officials acting ‘under color of law’ to deny Floridians their right to vote based on the ‘omission’ of a handwritten, wet-ink signature on a voter registration application, which is a ‘record or paper’ relating to ‘registration,’” attorneys for the groups wrote in a July court document. ”Because whether a voter provides a signature by pen, e-signature or otherwise provides no insight into a voter’s qualifications to register, rejecting applications due to the wet signature requirement violates the materiality provision (of the Civil Rights Act).”

But Winsor, in an 18-page decision dismissing the lawsuit, wrote that the plaintiffs’ “entire premise is that a copied, faxed or otherwise non-original signature is equal in stature to an original, wet signature. But we know this not to be so.”

“It is true that times are changing and that electronic signatures are acceptable in situations they once were not,” Winsor wrote. “But the acceptance of electronic signatures in certain circumstances does not render the wet signature requirement immaterial in this circumstance.”

The groups filed the lawsuit in March and named as defendants Secretary of State Cord Byrd and county supervisors of elections. The Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Pasco County intervened as defendants to support the wet-signature requirement.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed in May, attorneys for Byrd and supervisors said the “original” signature requirement dates to 2005 and that it does not violate the Voting Rights Act. Also, the motion said voters can register to vote with digital signatures through the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

“Even if a paper application with an original signature were the only method of registering to vote — which it is not — the court would have to stack assumption upon assumption to find that the requirement denies the right to vote,” the motion said.

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