Appeals court backs most of elections law
Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash
By Dara Kam
News Service of Florida
April 27, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — An appeals court on Thursday overturned the bulk of a federal judge’s ruling that a 2021 Florida elections law was intended to discriminate against Black voters, finding that he relied on “fatally flawed” analyses and “out-of-context” statements by legislators.
The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the elections law as GOP leaders across the country pushed to make voting changes after former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.
The law imposed new restrictions on mail-in voting and voter-registration groups and prohibited people from giving snacks and drinks to voters waiting in line to cast ballots.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last year ruled that the law, challenged by voting-rights groups, was intentionally intended to discriminate against Black voters. The judge also made the rare move of putting the state under a process known as “preclearance,” meaning that he would have to approve any changes to certain parts of state elections laws.
But Thursday’s split ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 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,” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in a 79-page decision joined by Judge Britt Grant. “On the contrary, examining the record reveals that the finding of intentional discrimination rests on hardly any evidence.”
Judge Jill Pryor issued a dissenting opinion.
While Florida had a relatively smooth 2020 election, Republicans in 2021 said changes were needed to help ensure future elections would not have issues such as fraud. The law (SB 90) included restrictions on ballot drop boxes, such as requiring boxes to be manned by employees of the supervisor of elections and limiting their use to early-voting hours.
The law also 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.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and a number of Black and Hispanic advocacy groups went to federal court to challenge the measure, alleging that it was an effort to restrict minority voters from accessing the ballot.
In his March 2022 ruling, Walker found that “every single challenged provision has a disparate impact on Black voters in some way.”
The state “has repeatedly, recently, and persistently acted to deny Black Floridians access to the franchise,” the judge wrote.
But Thursday’s decision said that, “from the start,” Walker “erred,” adding that judges must remain mindful “of the danger of allowing old, outdated intentions of previous generations to taint (Florida’s) legislative action forevermore on certain topics.”
The state’s “more recent history does not support a finding of discriminatory intent. The only pieces of legislation cited by the district court that were adopted since the year 2000 offer no support for its finding of discriminatory intent,” the majority opinion said.
In her dissent, Jill Pryor said Walker, in a “thorough and well-reasoned order, committed no reversible error.”
Jasmin Burney-Clark, the founder of an organization that is one of the plaintiffs, called Thursday’s ruling disappointing.
“Today, the appeals court has assisted Florida Republicans in silencing Black and Brown Floridians, but attacks to suppress our voices are nothing new, and we will adapt, organize, and overcome until we are heard and we are represented,” said Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground.
Thursday’s ruling also disputed Walker’s conclusions “about the close relationship between racial identification and political affiliation” among Floridians. Walker found that “for white and Black voters in Florida, separating race from politics only works in science fiction.”
But William Pryor wrote that “the Supreme Court has warned against conflating discrimination on the basis of party affiliation with discrimination on the basis of race.”
The appeals court found that the parts of the 2021 law imposing restrictions on drop boxes and on voter registration by third-party groups were not intended to discriminate against Black and Hispanic voters and did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
“In sum, based on this record — and even in the light of the deferential standard of review we must apply to the findings of fact — the district court clearly erred in finding that the challenged provisions were enacted with discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. As a result, we reverse the decision of the district court in part,” Thursday’s ruling said.
But the appellate panel also ruled that part of the law prohibiting people from “engaging in any activity with the . . . effect of influencing a voter” outside of polling places was “unconstitutionally vague.” Plaintiffs argued the provision would prevent people from giving food or water to voters waiting in line to cast ballots.
“How is an individual seeking to comply with the law to anticipate whether his or her actions will have the subjective effect of influencing a voter? Knowing what it means to influence a voter does not bestow the ability to predict which actions will influence a voter. As a result, the district court correctly determined that this phrase in the solicitation provision ‘both fails to put Floridians of ordinary intelligence on notice of what acts it criminalizes and encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, making this provision vague to the point of unconstitutionality,’” Thursday’s ruling said.
The appellate panel put that part of the 2021 law on hold and sent the issue back to Walker “for further proceedings.”
While Republican lawmakers argued the changes in the 2021 law was necessary to make the state’s elections more secure, Walker decided that was a “justification” for discrimination because voting fraud is rare in Florida.
But Thursday’s ruling called Walker’s analysis flawed, saying that court precedent “does not require evidence of voter fraud to justify adopting legislation that aims to prevent fraud.”
Florida lawmakers “passed a bill that supporters argued would safeguard the integrity of elections against non-imaginary threats. The wisdom of the Legislature’s policy choices is not ours to judge,” William Pryor wrote.