A federal appeals court on Friday cleared the way for a restrictive new Florida voting law to come into effect.
The court also dropped a lower court’s requirement that the state must seek approval from the court for further changes to electoral laws, a process known as “preclearance” that courts can impose on states with a history of racial discrimination.
The ruling, by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, reinstated the barriers to voter registration drives, ballot boxes and assistance to voters who queued as part of sweeping electoral law that gave the Republican-controlled state legislature a year ago.
Judge Mark Walker of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Florida had blocked the entry into force of these provisions in a March 31 ruling. Judge Walker said lawmakers had deliberately written the provisions to suppress black voter turnout.
A mob of voting and civil rights groups had filed a lawsuit to block Florida law, many of which created new barriers to obtaining and returning absentee ballots. One of the provisions blocked by Judge Walker severely limited the hours and locations of the polls, requiring that each ballot box be personally monitored by an election official at all times.
A second clause targeted voter registration actions, which primarily attract young voters and voters of color, by requiring new registrants to be warned that their voting applications may not be submitted in time to be valid. A third clause restricted contact with voters waiting in line and prohibits “any activity with the intent to influence or influence a voter”.
Critics said the vague wording of that clause would block even impartial activities, such as handing out water or food to voters.
Judge Walker, who was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama, cited what he called “a horrendous history of racial discrimination in voting” in deciding to block those provisions of the bill. Since nearly nine in ten black voters support Democrats, he wrote, “For white and black voters in Florida, separating race and politics only works in science fiction.”
That history, he wrote, justified requiring the state to approve changes to election law for the next decade with the court.
In overturning the judge’s order, a panel of three appeals court judges cited what has become known as the Purcell Principle, a legal doctrine that states that courts should not block or abolish voting laws too close to an election for fear to confuse voters. The Supreme Court has invoked the principle in a number of recent electoral law cases, sometimes criticizing the unequal application of the rule.
But the three judges, all of whom were appointed to the bench by President Donald J. Trump, also addressed Judge Walker’s reasoning, labeling his claim that Florida’s history of voter discrimination continues to this day.
“We have been clear that ‘old, outdated intentions of previous generations’ should not forever affect a state’s legislative action on certain issues,” the judges wrote, saying courts should instead focus on specific events. that led to the challenge of the law. †
“At least to our preliminary assessment, the court’s investigation does not appear appropriately ‘targeted’ or ‘limited,'” they wrote.
They also said Judge Walker had ignored a requirement that in cases of alleged voter discrimination, courts must first assume state lawmakers acted in good faith when enacting the measures being challenged.