By John Haughey
The Center Square
July 20, 2020
(The Center Square) – Progressive groups seeking to expand Florida’s vote-by-mail laws in a federal lawsuit against the state have accepted a settlement rather than follow through with a trial that was set to begin Monday.
In an agreement announced Sunday and confirmed Monday by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, plaintiffs in Nielsen et al v. DeSantis et al dropped the lawsuit in exchange for assurances the state will ensure voters understand mail-in-voting options.
The Republican Party of Florida, which, along with the Republican National Committee (RNC), had intervened in the case, called the agreement a “victory.”
“Floridians choosing to vote by mail must have confidence their vote will be safe and secure,” said state GOP Chairman Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. “We are glad the Democrat-aligned organizations finally saw the light and dropped their lawsuit.”
“Today’s victory is a win for Florida voters and a win for election integrity,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said. “Democrats’ assault on our elections process is not based on fact or reason, which is why they are dismissing every claim in their radical suits.”
Plaintiffs, however, also claimed victory.
“This settlement is an important step forward but it is clearly not everything that we believe needs to be done to protect democracy in our state,” New Voter Majority’s Andrea Mercado said. “We will continue pushing forward for the critical August election and then again in November.”
New Voter Majority, Priorities USA, Alianza for Progress, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Dream Defenders and other groups filed lawsuits between March and May claiming Florida election laws violate the First, Fifth and 24th amendments.
The lawsuits sought to eliminate postage for mail-in ballots, extend mail-in ballot deadlines and remove a prohibition against paid workers collecting mail-in ballots.
Defendants included Gov. Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Attorney General Ashley Moody, the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission and the state’s 67 county elections supervisors.
In hearings leading to Monday’s scheduled trial, Hinkle removed DeSantis as a defendant, allowed the RNC to intervene, consolidated the lawsuits into one case and dismissed the claim that charging postage for mail-in ballots was unconstitutional.
Under the settlement agreement, Lee agreed to initiate a public outreach to “educate” county elections supervisors about vote-by-mail procedures and “encourage” them to ensure voters are aware of their options.
Lee also agreed to “educate the supervisors on the acquisition and use of any new voter accessibility technologies approved or conditionally approved by the secretary.”
Under the agreement, local elections officials must “maximize the use of drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots” and inform voters about the availability of ballot drop-off sites and to “use the maximum number of early voting days available to them so they can avail themselves of additional canvassing days and maximize the availability of mandatory drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots.”
The agreement also encourages supervisors to use their websites “and other platforms” to make vote-by-mail request forms and ballots available in Spanish.
Those concessions mean the lawsuit was successful, Advancement Project Director Judith Browne Dianis told reporters Monday.
“Florida went from doing nothing to committing to educating and encouraging all 67 supervisors of elections to expand access to democracy in this historic 2020 presidential election,” she said. “This settlement imposes stricter requirements on voter education, vote by mail, early in-person voting and voter registration.”
Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said Sunday despite the settlement, advocates may continue to challenge aspects of state voting laws that restrict access to the polls.
“We will continue to explore all of our options to ensure Florida has the tools they need to vote in November,” he said.