After two hurricanes, two lawsuits and two federal court orders, voter registration for November’s general election has now closed across the state of Florida.
Registration was originally scheduled to end one week ago, on October 11. But when Hurricane Matthew tore through the state earlier this month, the Florida Democratic Party asked Gov. Rick Scott to extend the deadline in order to give those affected by the storm more time to register to vote. After Scott declined to extend the deadline, the FDP filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to force him to move the date.
On October 11, US District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled that an extension was necessary, initially moving the deadline by one day before deciding to provide a week-long extension. Walker wrote in his decision that “this case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted. Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy.”
According to Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox, 230,000 Marion County residents have registered to vote in next month’s general election, including around 1,300 who registered during the week-long extension. With more registration forms expected to arrive over the next few days, the total number of registrations completed during the extension period could end up being closer to 2,000, he said.
Wilcox also clarified that while in-person registrations are no longer being accepted, voters whose forms were submitted by mail and postmarked on or before October 18 will still be eligible to vote in next month’s election.
Because the extension was requested by a political party, Wilcox said there was initially concern that there could be bias in who was being registered during the extra week. But as voter registration forms continued to come in, he said he noticed that they followed registration trends that he had seen before.
From October 11-18, the Republican Party received the most new registrations in Marion County, followed by voters with no party affiliation, or NPAs. The Democratic Party received the fewest new registrations in the county.
“You look at who filed the suit to extend the deadline, and you think ‘OK, so it’s going to have some sort of bonus effect to a particular group,’” Wilcox said. “And it really didn’t. It pretty much followed the trends of our registration numbers.”
Michael Martinez, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, agreed that statewide voter registration measures during the extension didn’t demonstrate significant political bias.
“The campaigns and the parties have been active at trying to get people to register to vote statewide, and the Democrats have actually done a pretty good job in terms of getting people registered to vote,” he said. “I don’t think the one week extension is going to change that dramatically one way or another.”
While it may not have a significant influence statewide, the extension will be important “for the people who got a chance to register to vote that might not have,” Martinez said. “It’s obviously important to them individually.”
In addition to the extension to the voter registration deadline, Martinez also highlighted a second recent court decision from Judge Walker that required all 67 county supervisor of elections across Florida to allow registered voters to change or update the signatures on their registration forms.
“The issue there is that when a person votes absentee,” Martinez said, “the person has to sign the envelope in which he or she returns their absentee ballot. People’s signatures change over time, as they age. I registered to vote 30 years ago in Alachua County, and my signature may have changed.”
Martinez said that before the court’s decision, if a discrepancy was found between the signature that a county supervisor of elections had on file and the signature on the ballot, depending on the county, the vote may not have been counted at all.
According to Wilcox, out of the 14,000 absentee ballots his office has received so far this election, only 21 Marion County voters have had issues with their signatures, and that his office has sent notices to all affected voters in order to give them a chance to update their signature.
In his decision to allow updates to signatures, Judge Walker called the various signature policies across the state an example of Florida’s “illogical, irrational, and patently bizarre” voting laws.
In-person early voting will begin in Marion County and Alachua County on October 24, and will continue until November 5. County supervisor of elections across Florida are currently accepting absentee ballots. Registered voters can either submit their ballots in person at their local supervisor of elections’ office, or they can be submitted by mail. Election Day is on November 8.