A federal appeals court cleared the way on Friday for a restrictive new voting law in Florida to take effect, saying that a lower court order blocking parts of the law had been issued too close to the state’s scheduled primary elections in August.
The court also erased a lower-court requirement that the state seek the court’s approval for further changes in election laws, a process known as “preclearance” that courts can impose on states with a history of racial discrimination.
The ruling, by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, reinstated curbs on voter-registration drives, ballot drop boxes and assistance to voters standing in line that were part of a sweeping elections law that the Republican-controlled State Legislature enacted a year ago.
Judge Mark Walker of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Florida had blocked those provisions from taking effect in a ruling on March 31. Judge Walker said the legislators had deliberately written the provisions in order to suppress turnout by Black voters.
A throng of voting and civil rights groups had sued to block the Florida law, much of which raised new hurdles to obtaining and returning absentee ballots. One of the provisions blocked by Judge Walker sharply limited the hours and locations of ballot drop boxes, and required that each one be personally monitored by an election official at all times.
A second clause targeted voter-registration drives, which primarily attract young voters and voters of color, by requiring that new registrants be warned that their applications to vote might not be submitted in time to be valid. A third clause limited contact with voters waiting in line, prohibiting “any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter.”
Critics said the vague wording of that clause would bar even nonpartisan activities such as handing out water or food to voters.
Judge Walker, who was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama, cited what he called “a horrendous history of racial discrimination in voting” in deciding to block those provisions of the law. Because nearly nine in 10 Black voters support Democrats, he wrote, “for White and Black voters in Florida, separating race from politics only works in science fiction.”
That history, he wrote, justified requiring the state to clear election-law changes with the district court for the next decade.
In overturning the judge’s order, a three-judge panel of the appeals court cited what has become known as the Purcell principle, a legal doctrine stating that courts should not block or strike down voting laws too close to an election for fear of confusing voters. The Supreme Court has relied on the principle in a number of recent election-law cases, sometimes drawing criticism that it has applied the rule unevenly.
But the three judges, all of whom were named to the bench by President Donald J. Trump, also took aim at Judge Walker’s reasoning, labeling as “problematic” his assertion that Florida’s history of voter discrimination extended to the present day.
“We have been clear that ‘old, outdated intentions of previous generations’ should not ‘taint a state’s legislative action forevermore on certain topics,’” the judges wrote, saying that courts should focus instead on specific events leading up to the law being challenged.
“At least on our preliminary review, the district court’s inquiry does not seem appropriately ‘focused’ or ‘limited,’” they wrote.
They also said that Judge Walker had ignored a requirement that in cases alleging voter discrimination, courts must first assume that state legislatures were acting in good faith when they enacted the measures being challenged.