TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge on Thursday said he plans to rule later in the day on whether Florida should extend its voter registration deadline, but gave no firm signals on how he could decide the case.
Instead, in a rough-and-tumble hearing that lasted more than two hours, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker had sharp questions for the groups seeking to extend the deadline and and an attorney representing Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench by then-President Barack Obama, said he worried that reopening voter registration would cause more chaos and confusion, especially after Maria Matthews, the state director for elections, raised questions about whether those voters would be able to use a regular ballot on Election Day.
“Historically, Florida hasn’t managed to count the votes properly even when there is not a pandemic,” said Walker, who has clashed with Florida officials in the past over election law.
As Florida’s deadline for voter registration approached on Monday, its online portal crashed under a barrage of heavy traffic. To compensate, Lee pushed the deadline to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. A coalition of civil rights groups, sued saying that people needed more time to make up for the system’s failures.
During Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Walker expressed skepticism that Lee had legal authority to extend the deadline in the first place and seemed puzzled that she had announced an extension mid-day on Tuesday when many people were at work.
Walker asked about the number of people who used the portal to register in the final two days, and how that figure compared to the same time period in 2018.
Approximately 120,000 people registered to vote on Monday and Tuesday, according to the state, a number that Walker said should have been 21,000 higher based on 2018 data.
When Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Lee, pushed back on the questioning, Walker snapped.
“I know we have abandoned science, but have we abandoned math as well?” he said.
The plaintiffs, a coalition of liberal and civil rights groups, including the New Florida Majority and The Advancement Project National Office, said Lee’s extended deadline gave insufficient notice for people who couldn’t register the day before.
The groups had to scramble to restart their voter registration efforts once Lee announced the change, they said.
Stuart Naifeh, an attorney representing Demos, a liberal think-tank and one of the groups behind the suit, and said the groups had their “mission frustrated in a very concrete way.”
Jazil acknowledged that the state had “failed,” but said the problems constituted a minor burden on voters.
This again drew the ire of Walker, who said the 50,000 people who used the portal to register on Tuesday proved otherwise.
“I want a vaccine for Covid and you gave me Hawaiian Punch,” he said.
But Walker also sounded unconvinced at plaintiffs’ request that voter registration be extended for another two days. He said if he allowed registration again, it should be for a handful of hours and commence only after two or three days of public notice.
The state also questioned whether the groups that brought the complaint even had the right to sue. In their initial filing, the groups listed a plaintiff who the state discovered was already registered to vote.
Late Wednesday night that voter, Augusta Sandino Christian Namphy was dropped from the lawsuit.
Lee in a tweet initially said that the site was only dark for 15 minutes Monday, but a surge of heavy traffic resulted in people getting error messages into the evening. State officials told the court early Wednesday that at its height the site hit 1 million visits an hour, a stunning number given that Florida currently has roughly 14 million in the voters.
After a review by law-enforcement officials, Lee said in a statement on Tuesday that there was no sign of outside interference or “malicious activity” that contributed to the site‘s failure.
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