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Federal Judge Repeatedly Hammers DeSantis Admin for Registration Chaos: Voters Were ‘Thwarted’ by a State Seemingly Never Prepared for an Election

The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida took Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) administration to task after the state’s website crashed and the state responded, in the middle of a Monday workday, by extending the voter registration by a matter of hours. Judge Mark Walker said that DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee continued the Florida tradition of never being prepared for an election.

Walker, an appointee of Barack Obama, began by saying that COVID-19 has shut down movie theaters across the country, but the same movie is still playing.

“Notwithstanding the fact that cinemas across the country remain closed, somehow, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. Just shy of a month from election day, with the earliest mail-in ballots beginning to be counted, Florida has done it again,” he said. “In the final hours of Florida’s voter registration period, during an election year coinciding with a prolonged and incredibly damaging public health emergency Florida’s voter registration website crashed, effectively preventing thousands of potential voters from safely registering to vote before the midnight deadline.”

The judge said that Secretary Lee, in responding the chaos, “decided to implement a half measure”—namely, “unilaterally extend[ing] the ‘book closing’ deadline, but in doing so, provid[ing] little notice of the extension in the middle of a work day with less than 7 hours remaining before the new deadline.”

Despite the website crash, the court found that voters were not disenfranchised because “Floridians could still register through other avenues—including in person and by mail.” He denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction.

“Nonetheless,” Walker said in a related footnote, “this Court is still troubled by the limited nature of these mitigating factors based on the fact that the website shut down close to and after normal working hours, and one would not expect post offices or local elections offices to be open late.”

The judge reasoned that, “based on the record before this Court,” an order granting an injunction threatened to jeopardize the “integrity of Florida’s elections” and in a manner that “outweighs the burden placed on the voting rights of Floridians.” Judge Walker said the court simply could not “remedy what the state broke under these circumstances”—even though Secretary Lee’s actions “will cost thousands of potential voters their fundamental right to vote in the upcoming election.”

In saying so, the judge took some parting shots at the DeSantis administration and Florida elections in general.

“In the end, this case is not about Floridians missing registration deadlines. This case is also not a challenge to a state statute. This case is about how a state failed its citizens,” he wrote. “In this case, potential voters attempted to perform their civic duty, to exercise their fundamental right, only to be thwarted, once again, by a state that seemingly is never prepared for an election.”

The judge characterized the state’s response as “so sad, too bad.” Rather than extending the registration deadline to midnight on Monday, which may have changed the game for many affected voters, the state “chose to notify the public during a normal workday and gave them only seven hours to somehow become apprised of their rights and register, all while also participating in their normal workday, school, family, and caregiving responsibilities.”

Walker said one would think a state would try to “make it easier for its citizens to vote,” but Florida just can’t figure out how to run an election.

“In so ruling, this Court notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida,” the order concluded. “Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly—a task simpler than rocket science.”

[Image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.