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Attorneys urge a federal appeals court to uphold Florida's 2021 elections law

LAMAR CARTER
/
adobe.stock.com

Disputing that the Legislature acted in “bad faith,” attorneys for the state, elections supervisors and national Republican groups urged a federal appeals court this week to overturn a ruling that said a 2021 elections law was unconstitutionally intended to discriminate against Black Floridians.

In two briefs, the attorneys took aim at a March 31 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who backed voting-rights groups in a challenge to parts of the law and wrote that Florida “has repeatedly, recently, and persistently acted to deny Black Floridians access to the franchise.”

Lawyers for Secretary of State Cord Byrd, Attorney General Ashley Moody and county elections supervisors said in a 67-page brief Monday that Walker “got it wrong” and that the measure (SB 90) is a “facially neutral and common-sense election law.”

“The record shows the Florida Legislature attempting to balance integrity with access to improve voter confidence, provide clear rules, and address issues before they affected Florida’s election,” the brief filed at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

A panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments Sept. 15 in the case. After Walker found parts of the law unconstitutional, the appeals court in May issued a stay of his ruling — effectively allowing the law to be in effect during this year’s elections.

The law, which drew fierce debate during the 2021 legislative session, placed restrictions on the use of “drop boxes” for submitting vote-by-mail ballots, imposed additional regulations on voter-registration organizations and prevented groups from providing items such as food and water to voters waiting in line at polling places.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved the law amid a broader push by the GOP nationally to change election laws after former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 to Democrat Joe Biden. Florida had relatively few problems in the 2020 elections, but lawmakers and DeSantis argued they needed to add safeguards to help prevent fraud.

In challenging the law, however, voting-rights groups argued it was intended to restrict minority voters’ access to the ballot. As an example, the number of Black voters using drop boxes significantly increased in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Black voters are a key Democratic Party constituency.

Walker, in a 288-page ruling, agreed with the voting-rights groups about the discriminatory intent of the law and found parts of it unconstitutional. In addition, he took the rare step of putting Florida under a process known as “preclearance,” meaning that a court would have to approve changes to parts of elections laws.

But in issuing a stay of the ruling May 6, a panel of the appeals court took issue with some of Walker’s conclusions, including saying he failed to “properly account for what might be called the presumption of legislative good faith.”

The brief filed Monday by attorneys for the state and supervisors of elections also focused, in part, on the good-faith issue.

“The district court instead presumed bad faith,” the brief said. “It assumed that SB 90’s proponents intended to impose disparate impacts on black Floridians, instead of crediting their denials that any such impacts would occur. And although the law doesn’t require legislators to justify election laws with specific evidence, the court used the supposed lack of record evidence to discredit the legislators’ concerns with voter confidence and fraud as pretextual shams.”

The brief also said “facially neutral” laws about issues such as drop boxes and activities near polling places fall within the state’s constitutional authority to manage elections. It said Walker’s ruling instead focused on “the distant past and disparities” and was based on limited evidence about the 2021 law.

“It conflated partisanship with race,” the brief said. “It disregarded the legislative presumption of good faith and the principles of equal sovereignty.”

The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee intervened in the case and filed a 62-page brief Monday backing the law. The plaintiffs have not filed their initial appellate briefs.

The News Service of Florida