TALLAHASSEE — Florida residents will have until Tuesday to register to vote, after a federal judge ordered an extension of the registration deadline because of Hurricane Matthew.
With lawyers for Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner voicing no opposition to the extension, which was requested by the Florida Democratic Party in a lawsuit filed over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker approved the move during a brief hearing Wednesday.
The hearing came a day after the state's original deadline for registering to vote. Walker had already issued an emergency order extending that deadline to Wednesday while he considered the further extension to help potential voters who fled Hurricane Matthew as it lashed the eastern side of the state late last week.
"We are thrilled the court agreed to extend the voter registration deadline a full week (from the original deadline) following Hurricane Matthew," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement Wednesday. "While we wish it had not taken a lawsuit to get the Scott administration to do the right thing, today's ruling is a major victory for all Floridians and for the democratic process in the Sunshine State."
Scott had initially resisted moving the date, saying "(e)verybody has had a lot of time to register." But critics said that the 1.5 million Floridians who were under evacuation orders due to the storm deserved to have more time to return home, get their affairs in order and register — particularly after Scott urged residents to follow those orders.
"It came from him," Cecile Scoon, second vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said after the hearing. "It should have come from him to allow people to have the extension to register."
Scott's office issued a statement Tuesday that signaled he might back down and also suggested that the Legislature consider changes to the state's voter registration law during the 2017 session. Florida has one of the earliest registration deadlines in the nation, and the law has no provision for what happens if a disaster strikes near the deadline.
Walker, while stressing that he wasn't telling state lawmakers what to do, emphasized those points about Florida's deadlines during the hearing — saying they contributed to his initial decision Monday to order an additional day for registration. That ruling also argued the state law was unconstitutional.
"That's the entire point of this court's (earlier) ruling — namely, it is that gap that creates the problem that brings us here today," he said.
Arguing for continuing the extension through Tuesday, a lawyer for the Democratic Party said the additional time would make up for the weekend lost to Hurricane Matthew. That could help replace some of the voter registration drives lost to the storm.
"It's terribly important to have a weekend. ... Candidates and political parties take advantage of the weekend," said Kevin Hamilton, the attorney.
Voting-rights groups that joined the Democratic Party's lawsuit were already gearing up to push for changes in Florida law after Walker's decision.
"The reality of Florida is that there are going to be natural disasters, and Florida needs to have plans and policies in place that account for this," said Myrna Perez, a deputy director with the New York-based Brennan Center's Democracy Program, which represented the League of Women Voters. "I hope that this is an opportunity for the Legislature to revisit Florida's election practices."
Ion Sancho, the outgoing supervisor of elections in Leon County, suggested that the problem could be at least partially addressed when the state moves to allow voters to register online following this year's presidential election.
Walker also agreed to the Democratic Party's request to allow counties to submit or change their plans for early voting by Monday. Those plans were originally supposed to be in Sunday — shortly after Matthew pushed past Florida for good.