TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday extended voter registration until Oct. 18 in the battleground state of Florida, due to the disruption and damage from Hurricane Matthew.
During a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed to extend the deadline for six more days. He had already extended the Oct. 11 deadline one day, after the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last weekend, following the hurricane's brush with Florida's east coast.
Walker said in an order issued shortly afterward that he acted swiftly because "no right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy."
"Hopefully it is not lost on anyone that the right to have a voice is why this great country exists in the first place," wrote Walker, who set the deadline at 5 p.m. on Oct. 18.
Powerful Hurricane Matthew didn't make landfall in Florida but caused at least nine deaths there. Over a two-day period it knocked out power to more than 1 million people and caused flooding and beach erosion.
Democrats late last week asked Republican Gov. Rick Scott to extend the deadline, but Scott turned down the request and said people have had enough time to register. Scott brushed aside questions on whether his decision was related to his staunch support of GOP nominee Donald Trump.
In court, however, attorneys for both Scott and the state's chief top elections official offered no defense of the existing deadline and did not object to an extension. Most of the hour-long hearing before Walker was spent discussing how long to extend voter registration.
Walker said he did not believe that Scott had authority to use his emergency powers to waive the deadline. But he also pointed out that Florida law already allows the governor to suspend or delay an election if there is an emergency.
"There is a gap in Florida law that renders (the deadline) constitutionally untenable," Walker said.
Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, hailed Walker's decision.
"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," Tant said.
Voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, joined the legal battle and pointed out that they had cancelled voter registration drives because of the storm. Their legal brief cited statistics that showed nearly 160,000 voters had registered in the final nine days before the 2012 deadline.
They also noted that the threat of Hurricane Matthew had prompted federal authorities to postpone naturalization ceremonies scheduled in south Florida until after the Oct. 11 deadline. They cited the example of one Coral Gables resident who would not be allowed to register to vote until this weekend.
Unlike other states, Florida does not allow residents to register to vote online. They must fill out a form on paper and either deliver it in person or mail to their local elections office. Florida law requires the form to be postmarked by the deadline in order to qualify.
Federal law does not allow states to shut down registration more than 30 days before an election. Florida's current 29-day deadline has been in place for decades. Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said earlier this week that the governor would seek to change the law during the 2017 session.