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Plaintiffs call on federal judge to proceed with Florida mail-in ballot lawsuit

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    Plaintiffs in lawsuits alleging three provisions in Florida statutes unconstitutionally restrict mail-in voting accessibility are calling on a federal judge to reject the state’s request to dismiss and to proceed with a trial.

Priorities USA, Alianza for Progress and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans are among plaintiffs in a multiparty consolidated case filed under Nielsen et al v. DeSantis et al.

The lawsuit names Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Attorney General Ashley Moody, the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission and the state’s 67 county supervisors of elections as defendants.

The lawsuits claim Florida election laws violate the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment’s equal-protection and due-process clauses, and the 24th Amendment’s prohibition of poll taxes.

Plaintiffs seek to extend the state’s mail-in ballot deadlines, eliminate postage for mail-in ballots and remove a prohibition in state law that restricts paid workers from collecting mail-in ballots.

Even as elections officials cite increasing demand for mail-in ballots and acknowledge anticipated difficulties in finding Election Day volunteers, Priorities USA attorneys accused Florida officials and Republican organizations of adopting “the remarkable position – in a year in which a once-in-a-century pandemic has made voting by mail the primary means of accessing the franchise – that voting by mail is simply a luxury.”

DeSantis and Lee asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in late May to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing they are based on “speculative fears” about what might occur later in the year and the court lacks authority to intervene in the matter.

Hinkle has not responded to the request, but has removed DeSantis as a defendant and allowed the Republican National Committee and other GOP groups to intervene.

In requesting Hinkle dismiss the suit, state lawyers said plaintiffs failed to show “they have suffered a cognizable burden to their right to vote” or that Florida’s election procedures are unconstitutional.

“The plaintiffs – and even some of the county supervisors – may disagree with the policy decisions or progress of such efforts, but they cannot dispute they are within the state’s power to address,” state lawyers wrote May 27. “And, moreover, they can cite no basis to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court to critique – much less pre-judge or dictate – such discretionary decisions of state and local government” and demand “to rewrite Florida’s elections laws.”

In their 58-page response, plaintiffs maintain they seek to block “only three specific provisions of Florida’s vote-by-mail regime, which impose undue burdens on voters,” especially during the COVID-19 emergency.

Under current law, supervisors of elections must receive mail-in ballots by 7 p.m. Election Day. Plaintiffs want ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. Election Day to be counted.

Plaintiffs said forcing voters to pay postage to mail ballots is a poll tax and argue state law that restricts people from helping voters submit mail-in ballots is a violation of the First Amendment’s “unreasonable restrictions on speech and the right of association” provisions.

“These arguments defy reality, including the harsh reality of the pandemic, and are contrary to binding precedent,” they wrote.

Priorities USA also is a plaintiff in a similar April 22 federal lawsuit that challenges Pennsylvania’s voting laws and was party to a failed legal challenge to a Florida law that requires candidates from the sitting governor’s party be listed first on ballots.

“Make no mistake: it is these Florida laws that harm voters; the pandemic has only increased – and dramatically so – the number of voters subject to the laws’ burdens,” plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their brief. “This court has both the power and obligation to protect Florida’s voters from being unjustifiably burdened and disenfranchised by these laws.”

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