Activist Groups Sue Florida Over Primary Held During COVID-19 Outbreak UPDATED

Florida's Democratic primary election is March 17, 2020.
Florida's Democratic primary election is March 17, 2020. Photo by Stephen Velasco / Flickr
UPDATE, March 17, 11:15 a.m.: A coalition of civil rights groups has made good on its promise to sue the state. A federal court complaint filed late last night argues that Florida's decision not to extend its vote-by-mail period in the presidential primary election will likely disenfranchise voters who cannot get to the polls to cast ballots.

This morning, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle issued an order declaring that today's primary voting should continue as planned. But Hinkle acknowledges that the spread of coronavirus in Florida "will make it difficult or impossible for some to vote." The judge's order leaves the door open for future action in the coming days, saying "a separate order will be entered setting procedures going forward."

Both the court complaint and Hinkle's order have been embedded at the bottom of this post.

Five civil rights and activist organizations today sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis demanding that Florida make major changes to its voting procedures for Tuesday's 2020 presidential primary owing to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak — and warning they might take legal action if their concerns are ignored.

The five groups — the Sunshine State-based Dream Defenders, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, and the national groups Demos and the Advancement Project — say Florida's vote-by-mail deadlines for the primary should be extended to March 27. They want special precautions to be taken for vulnerable people who want to vote and say the state must take time to alert voters if their polling places have moved as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"Florida's Presidential Primary Election is tomorrow, and unless immediate action is taken by the state, millions of voters could be disenfranchised," Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders, said in a media release. "Thousands of young people who anticipated voting on or near their college campuses were abruptly sent home last week, and Florida's leadership has disregarded them entirely."
DeSantis' office did not immediately respond to a message from New Times this afternoon. But other states have taken drastic measures to alter or extend primary voting days during the outbreak. Earlier this week, Louisiana postponed its April 4 presidential primary as New Orleans grapples with a particularly bad outbreak of the virus. Today Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine proposed postponing his state's election until June 2.

But Florida and the two other states set to vote tomorrow — Arizona and Illinois — have closed polling venues without suspending the election. All three states have moved polling locations away from vulnerable areas such as senior centers — Arizona also closed 80 polling locations after claiming too many workers had called out sick or were unavailable. But critics have alleged those last-minute voting changes are unfair and could disenfranchise people. (Maricopa County Election Day Director Scott Jarrett bizarrely cut his own press conference short yesterday when he said, "I'm sorry — I can't do this," into a hot microphone as he stepped off the stage.)

In Florida, the primary is scheduled to continue essentially as planned. The Miami Herald this afternoon reported that both Miami-Dade and Broward Counties — the two largest areas for coronavirus transmission in the state — will not force polling locations to close if they break the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance that all gatherings of more than 50 people should be canceled.

The activist groups are demanding that the state take further action. The groups are also asking Florida to let poll workers move people with medical conditions or the elderly to the front of voting lines and let voters cast paper ballots curbside.

"We are in uncharted territory," Demos' president, K. Sabeel Rahman, said in a news release. "With the declaration of a state of emergency and the serious risks posed by COVID-19, many Floridians who had planned to vote in person will be unable to vote unless the state takes immediate action. Voters need accommodations for vote-by-mail and protective measures at the polls now."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.