By John Haughey
The Center Square
June 29, 2020
(The Center Square) – The same federal judge who ruled requiring felons to pay legal obligations before being eligible to vote in Florida is a poll tax has determined asking voters to pay postage to mail ballots is not.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has removed one of three primary complaints from a consolidated lawsuit seeking to expand Florida’s vote-by-mail procedures and set a July 20 trial date to argue the other two.
The trial could take up to 10 days, with a verdict coming only weeks before the Aug. 18 state primary and three months before November’s general election.
During a telephone conference Friday for Nielsen et al v. DeSantis et al, a multiparty lawsuit filed by plaintiffs that include Priorities USA, Alianza for Progress and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Hinkle said paying for postage is no different than the costs voters assume in gas or public transportation to cast ballots in person.
The lawsuits claim Florida election laws violate the First, Fifth and 24th amendments. In addition to eliminating postage for mail-in ballots, they seek to extend the state’s mail-in-ballot deadlines and remove a state prohibition on paid workers collecting mail-in ballots.
The suits name 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.
DeSantis and Lee in late May asked Hinkle to dismiss the claims, arguing they are based on “speculative fears” and the court lacks authority to intervene in the matter.
Hinkle has dropped DeSantis as a defendant, allowed the Republican National Committee and other GOP groups to intervene, consolidated the suits into one case and, with his determination last week, allowed two of the three complaints to proceed.
Hinkle said Friday plaintiffs’ allegation the state is liable for not taking precautions to protect voters and the electoral process during the primaries and general election is “too speculative to start litigating now” since neither have occurred yet.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers demanded more documents to assist in preparing for trial. State attorneys said they have provided more than 4,500 pages to plaintiffs’ legal teams.
Hinkle ruled he would “not compel the productions of thousands of pages of documents, taking up lots of resources. It’s time to focus on what matters and what doesn’t.”
Hinkle is the same judge who presided over the year-long battle in Jones v. DeSantis, issuing a 125-page ruling May 24 that repealed Senate Bill 7066, allowing an estimated 775,000 Florida felons to potentially vote in 2020 elections.
Hinkle’s ruling required the Florida Division of Elections (DOE) to ascertain how much a felon owed within 21 days of a status determination request. If the DOE cannot do so within that time, it cannot bar the felon from voting.
The state is seeking a hearing before the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hinkle was critical of DOE and the secretary of state’s office during the felon voting trial for not developing a way to clarify status for those eligible. He raised similar concerns Friday and warned the state against using the lawsuits to file injunctions seeking to suspend poll access until after elections.
“In our last litigation, there were a couple of areas in which the state said, ‘We haven’t done anything because the litigation’s pending and we’ve been waiting on the litigation,’ ” Hinkle said. “We’re close to an election. Please do not slow down preparing for the election because there is a lawsuit pending.”