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Poll workers help a voter put their mail-in ballot in an official Miami-Dade County ballot drop box on August 11, 2020 in Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Poll workers help a voter put their mail-in ballot in an official Miami-Dade County ballot drop box on August 11, 2020 in Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Citing Likely Racist Motives, Federal Judge Blocks Florida GOP's Voter Suppression Law

"At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental."

Brett Wilkins

Civil rights defenders on Thursday welcomed a ruling by a federal judge who struck down parts of a Florida voter suppression law, calling racism "a motivating factor" in the GOP-backed legislation's passage.

"Today's decision is a huge win for Florida voters."

In a 288-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker blocked provisions of Florida's Senate Bill 90, a massive attack on voting rights signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020. The law empowers partisan poll watchers, imposes strict voter ID requirements, criminalizes so-called "ballot harvesting," limits ballot drop boxes, and bans advocacy groups from handing out food or water to voters waiting in long lines.

"At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental," Walker wrote. "Based on the indisputable pattern set out above, this court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates."

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida—the lead plaintiff in the case—said in a statement that "for democracy to work, it must include all voices. A federal judge has ruled that the Florida Legislature has engaged in decades of intentional discrimination against Black voters with a series of voting laws" like S.B. 90.

"Senate Bill 90 was clearly an anti-voter measure that raised barriers to voting for marginalized groups with specific impacts on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students, and communities of color," Scoon added. "The league is gratified that once again the constitutional rights of all of Florida's voters have superseded partisan politics and that the targeted attack on Black voters will be stopped."

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) senior counsel Amia Trigg said that "today's decision is a huge win for Florida voters. This decision recognized that S.B. 90 is the latest stain in a long history of voting laws which restrict Black political participation."

Walker's ruling also placed Florida in Voting Rights Act preclearance status—meaning the state must receive federal approval before passing new voting laws—for the next decade, because its Republican officials have "repeatedly, recently, and persistently acted to deny Black Floridians access to the franchise."

"Without preclearance, Florida could continue to enact such laws, replacing them every legislative session if courts view them with skepticism," the judge wrote. "Such a scheme makes a mockery of the rule of law."

Walker also took aim at the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, accusing the justices of "gutting" the Voting Rights Act's preclearance regime.

"As Judge Walker acknowledged, this is part of a larger assault on voting rights that continues across the country," Trigg said. "We're seeing the right to vote being targeted at every level of government. Therefore, it is crucial that we continue this fight."

"Every voice deserves to be heard in our democracy, and state officials must ensure that by making elections fair and accessible—not by creating unnecessary obstacles to the ballot box," she added. "This ruling is extremely encouraging for those of us on the frontlines."

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the advocacy group Common Cause, said that "our 'government by the people' is stronger and more representative when all of us can participate in it."

"But as the court found today, for the past 20 years, 'Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters' as the Legislature worked to pick and choose the voters they want to participate in our government—and the voters they want to exclude," she added. "This is completely antithetical to our ideals of what a government 'by the people' ought to look like. We particularly appreciate that Judge Walker is insisting on 10 years of preclearance through his court."

According to Edward Hailes, the then-general counsel for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the intentional disenfranchisement by GOP-led Florida officials of thousands of Black voters "was outcome-determinative" in the state's—and therefore the nation's, given the decisive role played by Florida—2000 presidential election results.

Some observers noted the unlikelihood of Walker's ruling surviving an appeal to the 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court, with its 6-3 right-wing supermajority.

"We've seen other district courts do aggressive things in election law cases, and we've seen a lot of those decisions get reversed by appellate courts or the Supreme Court," Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School professor and election law expert, told The New York Times." I wouldn't be shocked if this litigation falls into that pattern."

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