ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge on Saturday issued a scathing rebuke to Florida's top election official in an order cancelling a hearing on a lawsuit over vote-by-mail ballots.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker accused Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner of delaying a hearing on the lawsuit "so that he could use every second available to run out the clock" so there wouldn't be enough time to address problems raised in the lawsuit. The judge also said Detzner's actions amounted to an "undeclared war' on the right to vote in Florida, the largest swing state in the presidential election.
The judge in Tallahassee, Florida said he will make a decision on the lawsuit without a hearing that had been set for Monday.
"This court will not allow the Florida Secretary of State — a high-level officer of the State of Florida — to take a knee and deprive Florida citizens of their most precious right," Walker said in his order.
A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office, Meredith Beatrice, said in an email that the department had responded by the court's deadline. She also said her office wasn't the right defendant in the lawsuit since canvassing of mail-in ballots is done by county canvassing boards.
Detzner was appointed to the job by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The lawsuit filed by the Florida Democratic Party says thousands of vote-by-mail ballots are rejected each election because signatures on a voter's ballot envelope and registration file don't match. Under Florida law, a vote-by-mail ballot must have a signature to be counted.
County canvassing boards rejected more than 23,000 ballots in the 2012 presidential election, according to the lawsuit.
While voters who forget to sign their ballots are given the opportunity to fix that, voters whose signatures don't match aren't, and they should be given the same opportunity to "cure" any signature problems, according to the lawsuit.
In court documents, the Secretary of State's Office argued that county canvassing boards are responsible for fixing any problems, not the agency.
After the lawsuit was filed earlier this month, the judge held a scheduling hearing. The Secretary of State's Office requested a week to respond to the lawsuit and later the notified the judge that no witnesses or evidence would be presented at Monday's hearing.
"If one were skeptical, it would appear that the Florida Secretary of State requested as much time as he felt he could possibly justify so that he could use every second available to run out the clock," the judge wrote. "And by wasting a week on his scintillating response, he quite nearly succeeded."
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