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State, Plaintiffs Tout Vote-By-Mail Settlement

Al Diaz
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE --- With both sides claiming victory, a federal judge on Monday signed off on a settlement reached by the state and left-leaning groups over Florida’s vote-by-mail procedures.

The agreement, which was announced Sunday before a two-week trial was slated to kick off Monday morning, settled nearly all of the issues in lawsuits filed by Priorities USA, Dream Defenders and other plaintiffs seeking to make changes that would help expand voting by mail.

Arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a record number of Floridians opting to cast ballots from home to reduce the possibility of being infected with the highly contagious coronavirus, the plaintiffs sought to extend a deadline for mail-in ballots to be returned and wanted free postage for absentee ballots. They also challenged a provision in Florida law restricting paid workers from collecting mail-in ballots.

But on Sunday, lawyers for the plaintiffs and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration notified the court that they had reached a settlement.

During a brief but emotional hearing Monday morning, Mohammad Jazil, a private attorney who often represents the DeSantis administration in elections-related lawsuits, choked back tears when describing the impact of the agreement.

The settlement is a victory for all Floridians, Jazil told U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.

“The victors include the black teen in Overtown Miami, who will be voting for the first time, the hurricane refugee from Puerto Rico who’s now casting a vote in Kissimmee, the rural voters, a single mom, the dad who works two jobs” and first-generation college students, Jazil said.

“These victors are those who sometimes need a hand in exercising the franchise,” Jazil added, struggling to speak. “These people are to be applauded. This agreement will help these Floridians, and many others like them.”

Jazil noted that Hinkle in previous cases “has told me specifically that voting is the beating heart of a democracy.”

The court “has from time to time reminded me that the focus in these elections cases should always be on counting all eligible votes,” Jazil, an attorney with the Tallahassee-based Hopping Green & Sams law firm, said.

“The state agrees,” he added.

Jazil’s comments to the judge came less than 24 hours after the Republican Party of Florida, which intervened in the case, issued a statement gloating over the settlement.

“After the Republicans defeated the Democrat-aligned organizations’ attempt at a preliminary injunction last month, the organizations decided to settle the case in order to avoid an even worse loss at trial,” state Republican Chairman Joe Gruters said in a Sunday news release.

But Jazil, the state’s lawyer, told Hinkle on Monday that the agreement “will show all Floridians that, while elections are partisan, election administration is not.”

The agreement requires Secretary of State Laurel Lee to “educate” and “encourage” county supervisors of elections about a variety of vote-by-mail procedures that were at the heart of the case, which was a consolidation of lawsuits.

For example, the state’s top elections official will be required to educate supervisors about pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots. The settlement also will encourage local elections officials “to maximize the use of drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots” and to inform voters about the availability of the ballot drop-off sites.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that Florida needed to expand its vote-by-mail procedures because of COVID-19, which disrupted the state’s presidential primary election in March and is expected to cause even more issues in the Aug. 18 primary elections and the Nov. 3 general election.

The settlement agreement, however, cited emergency orders issued by DeSantis that give county officials extra time to canvas vote-by-mail ballots and to conduct what are known as “logic and accuracy” tests before early voting begins.

The agreement encourages supervisors “to use the maximum number of early voting days available to them so … they can avail themselves of additional canvassing days and maximize the availability of mandatory drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots.”

And the settlement encourages supervisors to use their websites “and other platforms” to make vote-by-mail request forms and ballots available in Spanish.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers stressed the significance of the voter-education provisions in the settlement.

“This is a victory for Florida voters. We were very happy to have the state engage with us to develop what we consider some very common-sense efforts to expand access to vote-by-mail and early voting,” Stuart Naifeh, an attorney for some plaintiffs, told reporters during an online news conference before the hearing.

The agreement ensures that Floridians “have the ability to vote, without unnecessary obstacles, and that their votes are counted,” John Devaney, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, told Hinkle.

The provisions in the agreement “establish a foundation that will remove obstacles that will make it more likely that votes are counted,” Devaney said.

“Those accomplishments that will be realized under this agreement have never been more important than during this pandemic. It’s particularly important for communities that are underserved, vulnerable communities, communities of color, the elderly, and those who are particularly susceptible to this tragic COVID pandemic that we’re all facing today,” he added.

While the settlement addressed nearly all of the issues in the case, it did not erase concerns raised by blind voters.

Matthew Dietz, a lawyer who represents the Florida Council of the Blind and individual plaintiffs, is asking supervisors of elections to adopt a system that will allow blind and visually impaired voters to secretly fill out ballots from home.

Hinkle on Monday agreed to a settlement conference between Dietz and the supervisors of elections later this week, and scheduled a trial to begin July 27. Dietz said the trial should last only one day.

“I am very optimistic that we will be able to implement this program by the election in November,” Dietz told the judge.

But Andy Bardos, a lawyer who represents a group of elections supervisors, including Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci, said the county officials had “very serious concerns” about meeting that deadline.

“We don’t share his optimism that this new voting system can be implemented by most supervisors” before the Nov. 3 general election, Bardos said.

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