Florida

WMNF | A judge sides with the state in a Florida elections law dispute

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By Jim Saunders ©2022 The News Service of Florida

A federal judge has denied a request by the Florida Democratic Party to block part of a new federal election law affecting constituency committees.

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge has denied a motion by the Florida Democratic Party to block part of a new state election law affecting county election officials.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on Tuesday refused to issue an injunction, saying the Democratic Party and two individual plaintiffs “failed their duty to establish a substantial likelihood of actual and imminent irreparable harm.”

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 17, alleges that the new law could prevent volunteer observers from sharing information from election board meetings. It claims the law violates the First Amendment and the right to due process.

But on Oct. 20, the Florida Division of Elections filed an advisory opinion on the law, which Williams said “defines certain legal language in a way that allays the court’s initial concerns that the law prohibited the release of information found at a public election, could criminalize unscrupulous board meetings, or severely limit the ability of authorized officers to report irregularities in election campaigning to their lead candidates, parties, or committees.”

The case, filed in Miami, addresses part of a broader election bill (SB 524) that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved earlier this year. Plaintiffs named Secretary of State Cord Byrd, who oversees the Elections Department, and Attorney General Ashley Moody as defendants.

Political parties, campaigns and organizations often send volunteers to election board meetings to observe how laws and procedures are being applied, particularly on issues related to postal voting. Electoral bodies can begin checking ballots before Election Day, which is November 8 this year.

Officials have long been barred from releasing results before polling stations close. However, the lawsuit focuses on an amendment, saying that any election official “or any other person authorized to monitor, review, or inspect ballot materials or monitor election advertising that contains information about votes cast for or against a candidate or an election measure or the results of which are published election” before the polls are closed commits a crime of the third degree.

The lawsuit alleges the amendment is vague and “cools down the core activity of the First Amendment” by observers reporting to political parties or other organizations on actions taken by advertising bodies.

“Political parties, campaigns and other organizations routinely send people — often volunteers — to county election commissions to observe election campaigns,” the lawsuit states. “These volunteers have traditionally reported to their volunteer groups involved with voter protection or election oversight, political parties, campaigns or organizations. These reports are an essential part of preventing unfair voter disenfranchisement and ensuring that elections are conducted free, fair and in accordance with the law.”

For example, the lawsuit states: “A campaign or party may have a legitimate interest in tracking the number of times an electoral commission determines that a ballot with a mark near its candidate’s name does or does not represent a valid vote for that candidate.” or the opponents of this candidate. Likewise, a campaign or party may have a legitimate interest in overseeing that the applications of Election Board Standards are being applied in a fair and consistent manner by campaigning agencies, both within a single district and across districts.”

But Williams, who was appointed to the Federal Bank by former Democratic President Barack Obama, cited assurances from the Elections Department’s advisory report that the law would not restrict the release of publicly available information from election board meetings.

“The plaintiffs’ broader interpretation of the statute would … bar those attending board meetings open to the public from disclosing information obtained during the meeting, a particularly untenable result,” she wrote in the 14-page decision. “Defendants’ narrower interpretation – that the law protects a discrete ‘category of sensitive election information directly relating to election results’ from being made available to the public by a narrow subset of persons who have special authorization to obtain such information become’ – is more reasonable and more obvious.”

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