Judge rejects new GOP-backed Florida election laws, says voting rights are ‘under siege’

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A federal judge struck down parts of Florida’s new election law on Thursday, siding with liberal groups opposed to restrictions on drop boxes for mail-in ballots and third-party voter registration.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker declared most of the law unconstitutional. He wrote that voting rights in the United States are “under siege” due to the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts.

In his ruling, which will be appealed in a more conservative federal court, Judge Walker took the unusual step of imposing a 10-year ban on any changes to Florida election law without “prior approval.” “of the court.

“Florida has repeatedly, recently and persistently acted to deny black Floridians access to the franchise,” Judge Walker wrote. “This court also finds that preclearance would prevent future violations.”

Judge Walker threw limits on when ballot boxes could be used. The law allowed the installation of drop boxes only at early voting sites and the offices of election supervisors. It also limited the use of drop boxes during the early voting period and required full-time drop box monitoring.

The 288-page decision is the first successful challenge in federal court of new election laws in 19 Republican-led states and is part of a partisan showdown over how Americans vote. Voting rules have become a battle between what Democrats call “voting rights” and what Republicans call “election integrity.”

Supporters of the laws in the Republican-led Florida Legislature said the changes were intended to prevent voter fraud related to the unsupervised and widespread use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots.

Judge Walker, appointed to the bench by President Obama, said the Florida legislature has a history of discriminating against black voters. He said he found drop box rules “will have a disparate impact on black voters” by reducing the number of drop boxes, which he said black voters are more likely to use.

The judge also rejected rules prohibiting people other than election officials from interacting with voters waiting in line, such as those handing out food or water, and he dismissed restrictions on where and when. when third-party groups can provide new voter registration forms.

The judge did not uphold the challenge to the identification requirements and annual renewal of mail-in ballots.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said the law significantly boosts voter integrity in Florida. He said he expected Judge Walker to side with leftist groups trying to block the law based on previous court rulings.

“It’s a legal equivalent of beating the table, and I think it was performative partisanship,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “I think it will be overturned on appeal. The only question is how quickly this will be overturned on appeal, but it won’t stand up to scrutiny.

Mr. DeSantis signed the legislation, passed in the Senate as SB 90, in May. It was immediately challenged in court by voting and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the League of Women Voters of Florida, who said the rules would make voting more difficult and aimed to hold back blacks and other minorities. to vote.

“Today’s decision is a huge victory for Florida voters,” said Amia Trigg, senior legal defense attorney for the NAACP. “This ruling recognized that SB 90 is the latest blot in a long history of election laws that restrict black political participation. As Justice Walker acknowledged, this is part of a broader attack on suffrage that continues across the country.

State Representative Anna V. Eskamani, founder of the far-left advocacy group People Power for Florida, called the ruling a “big deal” and said Judge Walker’s decision “speaks to decades of voter suppression. and subversion pursued by the Republican Party in federal and state elections.

Florida is among 19 Republican-led states that recently passed laws strengthening voter identification and tightening restrictions on when and where voting can take place.

Most of the changes were enacted after the 2020 election, when states and election officials relaxed election laws and massively expanded mail-in voting to address health and safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida House Speaker Chris Sprows, a Republican, called Judge Walker’s ruling “a 288-page charge of discriminatory intent based on a limited analysis of data he believes the Legislature might have have, wholehearted and complete acceptance of Democratic lawmakers’ comments, and a complete disregard for other viewpoints.

• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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