Nelson Inches Closer With Florida Ruling But Faces Time Crunch

(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge ruled that Florida’s law for handling ballots with mismatched signatures was applied unconstitutionally and ordered the state to give voters two more days to prove their identity and ensure their votes are included in a recount that has captured the nation’s attention.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker early Thursday ordered Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to give voters whose mail-in or provisional ballots were rejected until 5 p.m. on Nov. 17 to “cure” any deficiencies in their signatures.

The ruling is a partial victory for Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who sued to get all of the ballots counted unless the state could prove they were invalid. Nelson’s legal team had said at a hearing Wednesday in Tallahassee that even three extra days wouldn’t be sufficient to address the problem.

Walker said in his decision that vote-by-mail voters were not notified of a signature mismatch problem until it was too late to fix it, and that voters who cast provisional ballots on Election Day were given no opportunity at all. The judge said the ease with which ballots could be rejected, compared to how difficult it is to challenge the decision, was “shocking.”

“Without this court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy,” Walker wrote. “Rather, they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a filing Wednesday that “the fundamental problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that there is no constitutional right to a recount.”

Razor’s Edge

Walker ended a hearing Thursday, without ruling, in a separate lawsuit filed by Nelson and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seeking to extend Florida’s machine recount. Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for 1 p.m. The recount’s results are currently due at 3 p.m. Some counties are coming up against that deadline with many votes still to retabulate.

Nelson aims to overcome a razor-thin vote deficit in the recount for his race against Republican Governor Rick Scott, one of the most closely watched in the U.S. The margin forced an automatic recount, which triggered a spate of separate lawsuits in state courts further south.

As of the hearing, the state estimated there were about 5,000 vote-by-mail and provisional ballots with signature problems. Nelson trails Scott by about 12,600 votes. Even if all of the ballots were addressed and turned out to be Democratic votes, they alone wouldn’t be sufficient to offset Scott’s lead.

Other Outcomes

Still, other suits continued to swirl. In a separate case by Nelson in the same court, the senator is seeking to extend the deadline for the recount, a request that the state and Scott’s supporters are challenging. And the machine recount could trigger a manual recount if the margin remained 0.25 percentage point or less.

The judge, appointed by former President Barack Obama, agreed that state election law needed to be adhered to for elections to function properly but said that had to be balanced with the constitutional right to vote.

“The only way such a scheme can be reasonable,” he said, “is if there are mechanisms in place to protect against arbitrary and unreasonable decisions by canvassing boards to reject ballots based on signature mismatches.”

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