Florida judge refuses to extend voter registration deadline, rebukes election officials

FILE PHOTO: A voting booth is seen at a polling center inside a fire station in the Coral Gables neighbourhood during the Democratic presidential primary election in Miami, Florida, U.S. March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Marco Bello

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday refused to extend Florida‘s voter registration deadline, but not before sharply rebuking Republican officials for continued problems running elections in the battleground state.

Five civil rights and voting rights groups asked the court to extend the state’s Oct. 5 deadline for voter registration after Florida’s online registration portal crashed on Monday. Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee extended the deadline until 7 p.m. on Tuesday, but the groups were asking for an extra two days.

“In the final hours of Florida’s voter registration period, during an election year coinciding with a prolonged and incredibly damaging public health emergency, Florida’s voter registration website crashed, effectively preventing thousands of potential voters from safely registering to vote before the midnight deadline,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a ruling issued on Friday.

Walker, however, declined to grant the extension, saying he didn’t want to burden local election supervisors already bracing for record turnout in the race between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

“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.

“The Governor took quick and decisive action to ensure voter access to multiple registration options including online, in person, or through the mail. There was no basis for federal courts to get involved and the Governor expected this outcome,” said Cody McCloud, a spokesperson for Governor Ron DeSantis said.

Walker, however, offered a blistering critique of what he viewed as the state’s shortcomings in running an election.

“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 was critical in deciding the hotly contested 2000 presidential election that went to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore. The state’s high court allowed a recount to go forward at Gore’s request. A 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court ended the recount and led to Bush’s election victory.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Andrea Ricci