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A Democratic super PAC filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials on Monday, challenging voting laws it argues could limit turnout in the nation’s biggest swing state this fall. The lawsuit joins a persistent and ongoing legal battle over voting in a state that will be key to President Donald Trump’s reelection.
Priorities USA filed a joint legal challenge with Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Alianza for Progress and several individuals against four provisions they say limit mail or absentee ballots. In the filing in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, the groups argue that voters and elections officials will face challenges in November, including an unprecedented spike in demand for mail-in ballots and a reduction of poll workers and elections staff as the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
The case names DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, and Attorney General Ashley Moody, all Republicans, as defendants, as well as local elections officials. Priorities backed a similar suit in Pennsylvania, another battleground state, last month.
Several states have postponed primary elections as the severity of the coronavirus crisis increased. The viral outbreak has infected more than a million people in the U.S., killing tens of thousands of Americans and forcing much of the country to shut down, resulting in job losses for tens of millions of workers who have filed unemployment claims.
The complaint contends that the Covid-19 contagion makes access to absentee and mail-in voting increasingly important, but claims that that current state law creates significant barriers that infringe on Florida voters’ rights.
The filing challenges the constitutionality of the state’s Election Day receipt deadline for mailed ballots, arguing that ballots postmarked by Election Day should be counted. The plaintiffs also claim that the postage required for mailed ballots amounts to a poll tax and that a voter assistance ban imposes unreasonable restrictions on speech and the right of association.
“No Floridian should ever be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said in a written statement. “Our country faces a once in a lifetime health crisis, local and state leaders need to make sure that every Florida voter has full, equal, and safe access to the ballot box in November.”
Any change in the ballot deadline could have an impact in tight races. Nearly 7,000 ballots weren't counted in the 2018 election because some ballots mailed ahead of Election Day weren't received by the ballot-counting deadline. Then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, by slightly more than 10,000 votes in that election.
A progressive group called VoteVets Action Fund and two Democratic organizations tried to overturn Florida’s ballot deadline during a recount battle following the 2018 elections, but a federal judge turned down the request.
The lawsuit filed Monday is the second federal complaint pressing Florida to alter its voting rules due to coronavirus. Several liberal groups and voters filed a lawsuit on the eve of the March presidential preference primary, but a federal judge rebuffed their efforts to push back vote-by-mail deadlines and take other steps to protect voters.
The groups backing that lawsuit — including the Dream Defenders, which was created in the wake of the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin — filed a new version of their complaint in April. Those suing include elderly voters who said they didn’t vote during the primary because they feared being exposed to the coronavirus.
That lawsuit, which is scheduled to be heard in late July, also seeks to alter Florida voting rules, including allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted. Currently, ballots must be in local election offices by Election Day to be counted. The lawsuit also asks the state to pay return postage costs for ballots.
Florida's local election supervisors in early April asked Gov. Ron DeSantis allow accommodations for voters scared from the polls if the coronavirus outbreak persists into the August state primary or the November general election.
One request was to open early voting sites 22 days before the election and keep them open through Election Day. Supervisors also want greater leeway to consolidate and move polling places.
The DeSantis administration has not responded to the request.