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Citing race, a federal judge strikes down parts of a 2021 Florida election law

A poll worker deposits ballots at a drop box outside the Westchester Regional Library during early voting for the general election in Miami on Oct. 28, 2020.
David Santiago
Miami Herald via AP, File
A poll worker deposits ballots at a drop box outside the Westchester Regional Library during early voting for the general election in Miami on Oct. 28, 2020.

Updated March 31, 2022 at 5:29 PM ET

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge struck down portions of a Florida election law passed last year, saying in a ruling Thursday that the Republican-led government was using subtle tactics to suppress Black voters.

The law tightened rules on mailed ballots, drop boxes and other popular election methods — changes that made it more difficult for Black voters who, overall, have more socioeconomic disadvantages than white voters, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in his ruling.

"For the past 20 years, the majority in the Florida Legislature has attacked the voting rights of its Black constituents," Walker wrote. Given that history, he said, some future election law changes should be subject to court approval.

Florida's Republican-led legislature joined several others around the country in passing election reforms after Republican former President Donald Trump made unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Democrats have called such reforms a partisan attempt to keep some voters from the ballot box.

"It was only designed to fuel the narrative around the big lie and that the election was stolen from Trump," Democratic state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who is Black, said in a phone interview after the ruling was issued. "What we absolutely can't have is a system that, I almost feel like, is separate and unequal. Making it harder for Black people to vote is unconstitutional."

Democratic state Rep. Ramon Alexander said he and others argued before the bill passed that it would disproportionally affect voters of color, and he is glad Walker agreed.

"Florida has a long history of discrimination at the ballot box, and [the bill] was just another roadblock put in front of Black people trying to cast a legal vote," said Alexander, who is Black.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made the election bill a priority, said the state will appeal Walker's decision and win.

"In front of certain district judges, we know we will lose no matter what because they are not going to follow the law," DeSantis said at a news conference in West Palm Beach. He did not say specifically why he believes the ruling is incorrect.

Upon appeal, the case would go to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia, which is seen as being more conservative.

Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the bill, didn't immediately return a voicemail message seeking comment.

Much of the debate focused on vote-by-mail ballots and how they are collected and returned. Walker overturned a provision of the law limiting when people could use a drop box to submit their ballot, along with a section prohibiting anyone from engaging with people waiting to vote. Walker said the latter provision "discourages groups who give food, water, and other forms of encouragement to voters waiting in long lines from continuing to do so."

"One way, then, to measure whether this provision will have a disparate impact on Black or Latino voters is to determine whether Black and Latino voters are disproportionately likely to wait in line to vote," said Walker, citing testimony that showed that to indeed be the case.

Walker, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama, also overturned a provision in the law putting new restrictions on groups that register voters, including requiring that people working to register voters submit their names and permanent addresses to the state.

Walker ordered that for the next 10 years, any attempt by the Legislature to write new laws on the issues he overturned will need court approval.

"Floridians have been forced to live under a law that violates their rights on multiple fronts for over a year," he wrote. "Without preclearance, Florida could continue to enact such laws, replacing them every legislative session if courts view them with skepticism. Such a scheme makes a mockery of the rule of law."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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