'White Democrats do not wait in long lines': Race and the ballot in Florida

A member of the Pinellas County canvassing board processes ballots on Election Day in Largo, Florida, U.S. November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday issued a landmark decision finding that Florida Republicans restructured the state’s election system last year to favor their party over Democrats and that a set of voting restrictions were specifically intended to target and suppress Black voters’ access to the ballot.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee blocked provisions that made it more difficult to use drop boxes and third-party voter registration organizations and banned groups from offering water and other aid to people waiting in line to vote.

According to Florida’s elections data, Republicans targeted the restrictions to times and days “that Black voters, not all Democratic voters,” were most likely to use drop boxes, Walker said. Similarly, “White Democrats do not wait in long lines," he wrote, adding that those voters also generally do not use third-party organizations to register to vote.

The court held that Florida’s recent history of passing discriminatory voting laws warranted the rare step of placing the state under pre-clearance protection, which means lawmakers will have to seek court review before they can enact certain provisions, for a period of 10 years.

Walker’s nearly 300-page ruling includes a meticulous analysis of the circumstances surrounding the enactment of Florida’s Senate Bill 90. The judge’s findings speak to the current status of voting rights in the country generally – and the picture that emerges is dispiriting.

It’s the second major court ruling to strike down laws that were part of a wave of voting restrictions passed in Republican-controlled states last year, driven by President Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

An Arkansas judge ruled last month that four new voting restrictions in that state were unconstitutional, although the state Supreme Court has allowed the laws to remain in effect pending the justices’ review, the Associated Press reported on April 1. The lower court judge in that case said Arkansas’ recently-enacted laws were “based entirely on conjecture,” misinformation and fear-mongering.

Similar legal challenges are pending in Texas, Iowa, Montana, and in Georgia, where the U.S. Justice Department has also requested a pre-clearance requirement. (The cases allege discrimination against various minority constituencies.)

Walker's March 31 ruling largely conforms with the explanation given by Democrats, racial justice and voting rights activists, and many legal experts: that many of the voter restriction measures recently passed by Republicans are part of a racially discriminatory effort to gain a partisan advantage in state and national elections.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Senator Joe Gruters didn’t respond to requests for comment. Senate President Wilton Simpson called the ruling “inaccurate and unbecoming of an officer of the court,” Reuters reported on April 1.

A spokesperson for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential contender who signed the bill into law, referred me to comments the governor made on March 31 criticizing the ruling as “performative partisanship.” DeSantis predicted at the time that the ruling would be reversed on appeal.

The decision by Walker, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, resolved four separate lawsuits filed by numerous civil rights groups.

The court concluded that the new laws were part of Florida’s long and “grotesque history of racial discrimination,” citing earlier court rulings and a longer history of racial violence stemming from opposition to Black people’s access to the ballot. A deposition submitted as evidence in one 2012 case showed that the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party had testified to participating in meetings in which “not letting blacks vote” and “suppressing black voters in Florida” was discussed, Walker wrote.

A number of the specific findings that led Walker to strike down the recent laws are worth noting.

First, Walker held explicitly that some Republican lawmakers made false statements in support of the bill and that the state Division of Elections director was untruthful on the witness stand (The ruling came after a bench trial, which means that Walker’s findings about witness’ credibility will be difficult to overturn on appeal).

One senator, Dennis Baxley, "falsely claimed that a federal court order required SB 90’s changes,” Walker wrote.

And, much of the testimony from Division of Elections director Maria Matthews was not credible, the judge said. At one point, Matthews appeared to inadvertently admit that lawmakers had asked for racial and other demographic information about who was using drop boxes to vote, “then quickly tried to backtrack.” She struggled to recall much of anything when lawyers for the civil rights groups questioned her, but suddenly remembered the answer to every question when the defense put on its case, the court noted.

Baxley didn’t respond to requests for comment. Matthews also didn’t respond to my questions for this column. The Florida Department of State, which includes the Division of Elections, did not provide comment.

The court’s ruling also includes a text message conversation between party chairman Gruters and another Republican lawmaker that “revealed the real purpose behind SB 90,” Walker wrote. The messages show the two discussing election rule changes as a way to wipe out the lead Democrats had in mail-in voting in 2020.

Walker added that some Republican lawmakers’ use of racial stereotypes in response to concerns about potential minority disenfranchisement “could be considered evidence of racial animus.” Two Senators described voters who fail to make it to the polls as “lazy” during floor debates. The court ultimately concluded that those sentiments couldn’t be attributed to the whole of the legislature.

In lay terms, evidence and testimony showed that in 2021, Florida Republicans passed a set of laws to rig elections in their favor by intentionally disenfranchising Black voters - and did so fairly openly. Although the ruling knocks down newly-erected barriers to the ballot in Florida, the proliferation of similar laws around the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s increasingly restrictive view of voting rights, points to a continuing siege on minority voters’ access to the ballot.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com