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Judge sides with state in elections law dispute

okaloosa_elections.jpg
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections
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Election workers in Okaloosa County.

A federal judge has rejected a request by the Florida Democratic Party to block part of a new state elections law involving county canvassing boards.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on Tuesday refused to issue a preliminary injunction, saying the Democratic Party and two individual plaintiffs “had not met their burden to establish a substantial threat of actual and imminent irreparable injury.”

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 17, alleges that the new law could prevent volunteer observers from sharing information from canvassing-board meetings. It contends the law violates First Amendment and due-process rights.

But on Oct. 20, the Florida Division of Elections submitted an advisory opinion about the law that Williams said defined “certain statutory phrases in a manner that assuages the court’s initial concerns that the statute might unconscionably criminalize the release of information obtained at a public canvassing board meeting or severely limit the ability of authorized designees to report canvassing irregularities to their principal candidates, parties or committees.”

The case, filed in Miami, deals with part of a broader elections law (SB 524) that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved this year. The plaintiffs named as defendants Secretary of State Cord Byrd, who oversees the Division of Elections, and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Political parties, campaigns and organizations often send volunteers to canvassing-board meetings to watch how laws and procedures are applied, particularly about issues related to vote-by-mail ballots. Canvassing boards can start reviewing ballots in advance of Election Day, which this year is Nov. 8.

Officials have long been barred from releasing results before polls close. But the lawsuit centers on a change that said any elections official “or other person authorized to observe, review, or inspect ballot materials or observe canvassing who releases any information about votes cast for or against any candidate or ballot measure or any the results of any election” before polls close commits a third-degree felony.

The lawsuit contends the change is vague and “chills core First Amendment activity” of observers who report back to political parties or other organizations about actions taken by canvassing boards.

“Political parties, campaigns and other organizations routinely send people — often volunteers — to county canvassing boards to observe the canvassing of elections,” the lawsuit said. “These volunteers have traditionally reported back to their volunteer groups engaged in voter protection or election oversight, political parties, campaigns or organizations. These reports are integral to the prevention of wrongful voter disenfranchisement and to ensure that elections are run freely, fairly and in accordance with law.”

As an example, the lawsuit said, “a campaign or party may have a legitimate interest in keeping track of the number of times a canvassing board determines that a ballot bearing some marking near the name of its candidate does or does not constitute a valid vote for that candidate or that candidate’s opponents. Likewise, a campaign or party may have a legitimate interest in monitoring whether canvassing boards’ applications of the voter intent standards are being applied in a fair and uniform manner, both within a single county and across different counties.”

But Williams, who was appointed to the federal bench by former Democratic President Barack Obama, cited assurances from the Division of Elections advisory opinion that the law would not restrict the release of publicly available information from canvassing board meetings.

“Plaintiffs’ broader construction of the statute would … prohibit attendees at canvassing board meetings open to the public from releasing information obtained during the meeting, a particularly untenable result,” she wrote in the 14-page decision. “Defendants’ narrower construction — that the statute shields a discrete ‘category of sensitive electoral information directly bearing on election results from being released to the public by a narrow subset of individuals who have special authorization to obtain such information’ — is more reasonable and readily apparent.”

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida