Florida elections: Lawsuit aims to make it easier to mail in votes
A retired police captain who helps the elderly, an Ocala minister and a Miami man confined to his home don't want the coronavirus to disrupt this year’s presidential election.
They have banded together as lawsuit plaintiffs to take Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley to court. The goal is to make vote by mail the default choice for Florida’s 13.7 million registered voters.
Florida has recorded more than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths since March. More than 80% of the fatalities have been people over 65, and more than a quarter have been people of color, who make up about a fifth of the state’s population.
In a complaint filed last week in Leon County, the plaintiffs argue that fear of COVID-19 threatens to rob the vote of Floridians who are part of high-risk groups like themselves, and similar people to whom they assist and minister.
Their attorney, Harvey Sepler of Miami, explained no one knows the kind of threat the virus will pose during the August primary and November general election. The ability of many people to vote may depend on alternative voting methods, the suit says.
The solution, according to former Marion County Sheriff's Captain Dennis McFatten; Cynthia Cotto Grimes, senior minister at the Center for Spirtual Living in Ocala, and Art Young of Miami is to make vote by mail the first option for Floridians.
They want the court to direct Lee to tell the state’s supervisors of elections to mail out ballots and stamped, self-addressed envelopes to every registered voter.
Sepler described a vote-by-mail default as an “insurance policy” for democracy: “I am better off having that ballot in my desk in case I should decide that I prefer to vote by mail.”
He added: “To me, it makes it much more accessible to make sure that the supervisors simply mail it out.”
After more than 50 election workers and voters who participated in a Wisconsin primary in April tested positive for the coronavirus, officials across the country have raced to revise procedures to ensure safe elections.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — hold elections almost entirely by mail. Twenty-eight other states allow voters to choose if they want to cast absentee ballots by mail.
This week, a federal judge in Texas ruled that all voters afraid of being infected can request mail-in ballots under a “disability” provision in the election code.
And Michigan’s Secretary of State announced that all registered voters will receive applications for mail-in ballots for that state’s August primary and November general election.
Sepler plans to file a motion to expedite the court proceedings to get a ruling in time for the supervisors to comply before the August primary.
Although the Florida suit names Earley as a defendant, the Leon elections supervisor has already sent out vote-by-mail applications. He agrees with the plaintiffs that vote by mail is like an insurance policy.
"Just because you request or receive a vote-by-mail ballot does not mean you have to actually use it," Earley said. "I think I would be somewhat derelict in my job if I wasn't making sure every voter had an option to vote."
The lawsuit is more ambitious than what Florida’s supervisors of elections say is possible. They wrote Gov. Ron DeSantis last month to ask for a series of executive orders to help them prepare for the summer primary and fall general election.
Tammy Jones, president of their association, Florida Supervisors of Elections, told DeSantis the supervisors don’t have the equipment and resources to print, mail out, and count mail-in ballots for the 13.7 million registered voters.
Instead, expecting a shortage of workers and volunteers, like one during a Wisconsin primary in April, Jones asked DeSantis to waive certain restrictions on early voting procedures.
The supervisors would like an additional week of early voting, bringing the maximum to 22 days, permission to expand the number of early voting sites, and more time to mail out vote-by-mail ballots and to count them.
A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story. Court dockets show that the state has not yet been served with a copy; agencies typically do not comment on pending litigation.
For now, the suit has been assigned to Circuit Judge Ron Flury of Tallahassee.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Lawsuit aims to make it easier for Floridians to mail in votes