Wrangling continues in ballot signatures lawsuit

A new state law may have resolved issues at the heart of a federal lawsuit about mismatched ballot signatures, but the legal wrangling hasn’t ended.

National and state Democrats, who filed the legal challenge last year, asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to dismiss the case after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an elections package that included changes dealing with mismatched signatures.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee also want Walker to put an end to the litigation.

But while both sides agree that the revamped law fixes the disputed issues, they part ways on what should happen next.

Lee and Moody want Walker to dismiss the case “with prejudice,” a legal term meaning that the case would be permanently dismissed and plaintiffs would be barred from filing future lawsuits about the constitutionality of the mismatched-signatures law.

In a memorandum filed this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which joined the case as a defendant, argued that Democrats should file a lawsuit now, if they intend to challenge the new law.

“The countdown to the next election has already begun,” lawyers for the committee wrote on July 8.

Ballots for Florida’s March presidential preference primary election will be sent out in early February, the Republicans’ lawyers noted.

“As this court is well aware, Florida’s 2018 elections were marred and thrown into chaos by litigation in this court and others around the state immediately after the election, and in the midst of ongoing recounts. The court, the parties, and Florida voters should not be put in that position again,” they argued.

But in a motion filed July 12, lawyers for the Democrats argued against the state’s effort to put a permanent end to the legal skirmish over ballot signatures.

“In most cases, a voluntary dismissal should be granted unless the defendant will suffer clear legal prejudice,” other than “the mere prospect of a subsequent lawsuit, as a result,” the Democrats wrote, citing other court cases.

And they pooh-poohed the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s suggestion that the Democrats file a lawsuit “now” as “nonsensical.”

“NRSC points to no legal authority or principle that would require a party to file a legal challenge to a law immediately upon its passage, nor is it clear why concerns about the timeliness of hypothetical future lawsuits should be addressed here, as opposed to in the future hypothetical proceedings should they ever materialize,” the Democrats’ lawyers wrote on July 12.

Republicans had previously argued the ballot signature laws could not be challenged until a party “identifies specific individuals whom the signature match laws had actually disenfranchised,” the Democrats added.

The new law, which went into effect July 1, establishes a uniform process for canvassing boards to compare signatures and extends deadlines for voters to “cure” ballots with signatures that don’t match those on file with elections officials.

The changes resolved concerns that led to a lawsuit filed by former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida and national Democrats, in anticipation of a statewide recount last year in Nelson’s re-election campaign against former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who eventually won the Senate race.

Walker has scheduled a July 29 hearing in the case.

It’s the second time the federal judge has had to weigh in on the process for handling mismatched ballot signatures.

In 2016, Democrats filed a similar lawsuit, challenging signature-matching requirements for vote-by-mail ballots. Siding with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, Walker ordered the state to come up with a way to allow voters to “cure” ballots that were rejected. Walker called the state law “indefensible” and said it threatened to disenfranchise voters.

The law was revamped, but didn’t go far enough, Walker ruled in the most recent case.

While the new elections statute may have cleared up the dispute over the ballot signatures, at least for now, other aspects of the broad package are being challenged in court.

Walker this week recused himself from a challenge to provisions in the law that would carry out a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to convicted felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”

Under the new law, “all terms of sentence” include payment of any restitution, fines or fees ordered by courts. Plaintiffs in the case allege that the law is a "modern-day poll tax" that "discriminates on the basis of wealth,” while Republicans contend they are complying with the language of the constitutional amendment.

And plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit are alleging another portion of the law, which deals with campus early voting sites, was designed to make it harder for college and university students to cast their ballots. Walker continues to oversee that challenge.