Voting rights groups and state of Florida settle vote-by-mail lawsuit
An out-of-court settlement, coming the eve of a start of trial on a vote-by-mail lawsuit, had participants on both sides declaring victory Monday.
A group of voting rights organizations — including the New Voter Majority, Priorities USA, Dream Defenders and others — had filed suit to order changes to the deadline for mail-in ballots and other procedures, along with more days of in-person early voting because of COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had scheduled two weeks for a trial that was set to begin Monday in Tallahassee.
But speaking to reporters before a hearing to explain the settlement to Hinkle, the voting rights groups said they accepted the state’s pledge to work with county supervisors of elections to educate voters about vote-by-mail and to use the maximum number of early-voting days available.
Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project, a group focused on combating “structural racism” in voting, called the settlement a clear victory for all voters, especially Latino and Black people.
“Florida went from doing nothing to committing to educating and encouraging all 67 supervisors of elections to expand access to democracy in this historic 2020 presidential election,” Browne-Dianis said.
“This settlement imposes stricter requirements on voter education, vote by mail, early in-person voting and voter registration.”
As soon as the settlement was first announced Sunday, GOP state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, also the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, also declared victory. The Florida GOP had intervened in the case on the side of the state.
“Floridians choosing to vote-by-mail must have confidence that their vote will be safe and secure,” Gruters said in an email. “We are glad that the Democrat-aligned organizations finally saw the light and dropped the lawsuit.”
The groups sought to have Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee extend a deadline for mail-in ballots to an Election Day postmark, allow free postage for the ballots and repeal a provision that prohibited paid workers from collecting mail-in ballots.
They argued the changes were needed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But they accepted an agreement calling for Lee to encourage local officials to use drop boxes to collect the ballots, offer Spanish language vote-by-mail request forms and initiate a public information campaign about different ways to cast a ballot and register voters.
“This settlement is an important step forward but it is clearly not everything that we believe needs to be done to protect democracy in our state ... we will continue pushing forward for the critical August election and then again in November,” said Andrea Mercado of New Voter Majority.
One issue that remains unresolved, however, involves blind and limited-sight voters.
The Florida Council for the Blind, one of the plaintiffs, wants Lee to require the use of systems that enable visually-impaired voters to independently fill out ballots at home.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Voting rights groups and state of Florida settle vote-by-mail lawsuit