TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge declined to extend Florida‘s voter registration deadline, but not before ripping into Republican officials over the state’s repeated problems handling elections.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued his ruling early Friday, less than 24 hours after holding a testy two-and-a-half hour hearing during which he upbraided lawyers representing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, both Republicans.
Walker called his decision an “incredibly close call,” but said he didn’t wan‘t to issue an order that would overwhelm local election supervisors less than a week before a presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden that’s expected to have record turnout.
“Florida’s interest in preventing chaos in its already precarious—and perennially chaotic—election outweighs the substantial burden imposed on the right to vote,” Walker wrote.
Seven civil rights and voting rights groups sued to extend the state’s Oct. 5 deadline after the online registration portal crashed on Monday amid heavy traffic. Lee extended the deadline until 7 p.m. on Tuesday, but she did not announce that decision until midday Tuesday.
The plaintiffs called the move inadequate and said it failed to give would-be voters enough notice. The groups wanted the deadline extended by two days.
Walker said that if state officials had not extended the deadline — which he termed a “half measure” — he would have stepped in. And his decision didn’t stop Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, from upbraiding the state for its “failures.”
“This court notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida,” Walker wrote. “Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly—a task simpler than rocket science.”
Florida’s voter registration deadline, known as the “book closing,” is 29 days before the Nov. 3 election. Since late 2017, the state has operated an online portal that allows people to register. The site has had problems previously during surges of applicants. Democrats are suspicious of the portal’s problems and on Monday accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote.
Lee tweeted Monday that the site was dark for only 15 minutes, but a surge of heavy traffic resulted in people getting error messages into the evening. State officials told the court in a brief that at its height the site was hit with 1 million visits an hour, a stunning number given that Florida currently has roughly 14 million voters.
A review by law enforcement found no outside interference or malicious activity connected to the site‘s failure.
State officials told the court that slightly more than 70,000 people were able to register on Monday, followed by 50,000 more the next day after the deadline was extended.
During the Thursday hearing, Walker said the volume did not match the number of registrations that occurred before the 2018 election. He estimated that Monday’s failure might have prevented 21,000 people from registering.
Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Lee, tried to downplay the impact, drawing Walker‘s ire.
“Are you seriously taking the position that if it’s shut down for hours and 50 or 60,000 people don’t get to register, that’s a minor thing?“ Walker said.
Walker has clashed with Florida officials in the past. During the heated recount battles of 2018, he once asked why Florida elections make the “laughing stock of the world.”
The 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore wasn’t decided until December because of a contentious recount in the state, and in 2012, Florida’s results were held up several days due to massive lines that kept some polling places open until midnight on Election Day.