Election workers recount votes during the Florida midterm election recount on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla. (Christian Colon/Miami Herald/TNS)

Judge gives thousands of Florida voters with rejected ballots time to fix signature problems

MIAMI — A federal judge has ordered Florida’s 67 elections supervisors to give thousands of voters whose ballots were rejected over mismatched signatures another two days to fix the problem and have their votes counted toward the results of the 2018 midterms.

Judge Mark Walker ruled early Thursday that the state’s elections offices have unconstitutionally applied the law that lays out the methods for voters to “cure” problematic signatures on absentee and provisional ballots. More than 3,700 such ballots were rejected this year after canvassing boards deemed that a signature on an envelope containing a mail-in or provisional ballot did not match the signature the state had on file for the voter.

The ruling gives new life to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s bid to keep his seat through on ongoing recount of Tuesday’s elections. The Senate campaign of Gov. Rick Scott, who is ahead of Nelson by 0.15 percent of the vote, called the decision “baseless” and said he would immediately file an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta.

Walker issued a 34-page order Thursday morning that said Florida’s “questionable practice” for curing ballot signature mismatches has “no standards, an illusory process to cure and no process to challenge the rejection,” and as a result does not pass constitutional muster.

“Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their votes do not count,” Walker wrote. “Interestingly, Florida law does provide an opportunity for any voter or candidate to challenge a signature that was accepted and thus a vote that was counted.”

Nelson’s campaign and the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida sued last week to invalidate the signature rejection process, leading to a 5-hour hearing Wednesday in Walker’s Tallahassee courtroom. The state presented information showing that 45 of Florida’s 67 counties have rejected a combined 3,688 mail-in ballots and 93 provisional ballots over mismatched signatures. Miami-Dade and Duval counties, two of the largest counties in the state, did not report numbers.

Nelson, a Democrat, unofficially trails Scott, a Republican, by 12,562 votes.

Scott’s administration and the National Republican Senatorial Committee argued against an injunction, and asserted that the lawsuit by Senate candidate Nelson and the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida was barred because it wasn’t filed before election day. In announcing an appeal, Scott’s campaign said Nelson’s attorneys are making the opposite argument on signature mismatches in Arizona, in a case where the Democratic candidate was leading and the Republican was trailing.

Lauren Schenone, the Scott campaign’s press secretary, called the Nelson campaign’s legal arguments “blatant hypocrisy.”

“What this case comes down to,” Walker wrote, “is that without procedural safeguards, the use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement.”

Walker’s 34-page order — which begins with a football analogy — granted a temporary injunction to the Nelson campaign and issued a directive to the state’s supervisors of elections that voters with mismatched signatures be given until 5 p.m. Saturday to cure the problem. Previously, voters had until the day before the election to fix the signature issue.

Walker’s order places additional pressure on Democrats, and Nelson’s Senate campaign, to find as many of those excluded voters as soon as possible to seek to have their votes count. Democrats in Miami, for instance, say they’re already mobilizing to find affected voters and help them fix their signatures in order to have their votes count.

It’s unclear if Walker’s order will affect Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline for supervisors of elections to turn in the results from their state-mandated recounts of the U.S. Senate race between Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott, the governor’s race, commissioner of agriculture’s race and any other down-ballots contests that required a recount.

Neither is it yet clear exactly how many ballots were rejected over mismatched signatures, since the state had totals from only 45 of Florida’s 67 counties during a hearing in Walker’s Tallahassee courtroom Wednesday. Nelson almost certainly won’t be able to make up that difference based on ballots made valid through Walker’s ruling.

Walker, however, is set to hear lawsuits challenging the state’s process for counting overvotes and undervotes and seeking to extend the deadline for supervisors of elections to submit their recount totals. Nelson’s campaign is also hoping to make up ground through the counting of thousands of overvotes and undervotes.

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