Politics & Government

Court orders Florida elections chief to meet Monday deadline on fixing mail ballots

In this 2012 file photo, a Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral.
In this 2012 file photo, a Miami-Dade Elections worker marks a group of absentee ballots in Doral. AP

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief elections officer is under a court-imposed deadline to allow mail ballots with signature defects to be fixed in time to be counted in the upcoming election — a ruling that could affect thousands of Florida voters.

Calling the state’s election laws “a severe burden on the right to vote,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Sunday to allow a cure in cases in which a voter’s signature on a mail ballot envelope does not match the signature on file.

If Detzner does not comply with the order by the close of business Monday, the judge said he will take “appropriate action,” which could include holding Detzner in contempt of court.

Attorneys for Detzner opposed the court action and unsuccessfully argued that Detzner was not the appropriate official to be given the order. That prompted an angry Walker to cancel a scheduled hearing and issue an extraordinary ruling on Sunday night, about three weeks before the presidential election.

Detzner’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his ruling, Walker excoriated not only Detzner but also Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

Three years ago, lawmakers changed state law to allow a “cure” for ballots with no signature, but no such fix was required for cases of mismatched signatures, which Walker called “illogical, irrational and patently bizarre.”

Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered an amendment to a major elections bill (HB 7013) on April 15, 2013, that included the same fix required by the judge’s order, but Republicans rejected it.

The judge called it “at best disingenuous” for Detzner to tell the court that he wasn’t the proper party to get such an order, when he has routinely issued directives to them in the past.

“I’m proud of the judge,” said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections for 28 years in Tallahassee’s Leon County, who testified in the case Friday. “I’m proud of him for standing up to the kind of tyranny the Republican Legislature has subjected its citizens to. Voting is an incredibly powerful right that is the basis of every civil right.”

Sancho criticized Detzner for failing to immediately notify all 67 elections supervisors of the judge’s order.

Tampa Bay Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.