In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes. Florida’s 25 electoral college votes were all Bush needed to emerge victorious in the national election. The rest is history—the wrong war, torture, hand-outs to the rich, and the rest of it—a terrifying history decided by fewer people than fit into your local bar.
The Florida vote—and subsequent recount—was not without substantial controversy. There were some 12,000 eligible registered voters wrongly marked as people with felonies, thanks to a purge of the rolls by Florida’s governor; some of these would-be voters were denied the chance to vote by affidavit while their status was sorted out. Countless other people’s polling places were moved without notice and others were, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “by various other means prevented from exercising the franchise.”
This year, one federal judge in the troubled state seems bent on making sure Florida doesn’t end up, yet again, in the annals of the Elections Hall of Shame. With two big decisions in as many weeks, Judge Mark E. Walker has established himself as a defender of Floridians’ voting rights, deciding cases in a way that would expand, not contract, the number of voters in the state.
In one case, Walker, who presides over the Florida’s Northern District, ruled against a law that allowed Florida’s state government to exclude certain absentee ballots; just a week before, he extended the voter registration deadline after Hurricane Matthew created an obstacle to voters.
"These two rulings are certainly in favor of the voter," said Pamala Goodman, president of the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters. “These two rulings opened up more opportunities for people to register to vote."
In the latest case, Walker ruled late on Sunday night that the state must notify voters before Election Day if any errors appear on their vote-by-mail ballots so that they can have an opportunity to fix them. Under current Florida law, if there are any irregularities with the vote-by-mail ballot—such as a discrepancy between the signature on the ballot and corresponding registration form—it is tossed out and the voter is notified after the election. In 2012, Florida’s election board did not count more than 23,000 mail-in ballots because of mismatched signatures.
Democrats sued the state government to allow voters to “cure”—or resolve disputes over—mismatched signatures before the ballots bearing them are wholesale rejected during the count. “It’s a shame that it took a lawsuit to get basic protections for voter in Florida,” said Max Steele, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party.
"It is illogical, irrational, and patently bizarre for the state of Florida to withhold the opportunity to cure from mismatched-signature voters while providing that same opportunity to no-signature voters," Walker wrote in his ruling, according to the Associated Press. "And in doing so, the state of Florida has categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters for no reason other than they have poor handwriting or their handwriting has changed over time."
Steele, the Democratic Party spokesperson, lauded Walker’s ruling. “It was a fairly easy fix and a fairly commonsense one,” he told Fusion. “So, we were happy that the judge ruled in our favor.”
Walker’s rulings against the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott could potentially reshape the election in Florida.
Last week, Walker made another ruling that reinforced access to the ballot for Floridians. As Hurricane Matthew lashed the Florida coast, Gov. Rick Scott said he would not extend the voter registration deadline because “everybody has had a lot of time to register.” The Florida Democratic Party sued Scott and his secretary of state to force an extension of the deadline. Walker issued an emergency one-day extension while he reviewed the case and eventually sided with the Democrats, extending voter registration a full week past the original deadline.
"If we had not extended voter registration, that would have been voter suppression," said Goodman, of the Florida League of Women Voters. "It's going to allow more people to vote."
Appointed to the federal bench by Barack Obama in 2012 and confirmed by the Senate 94-0, Walker has a reputation for fair rulings. In 2014, Walker wrote in an opinion that it was unfair for teachers to be evaluated by test scores of students they do not teach. In the end, however, he hewed to Florida law, in which the evaluations were legal, and allowed them to proceed. Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who represented Florida Education Association in the teacher evaluation case, didn’t get the ruling he wanted, but still had kind words for Walker’s work.
“Whether you win or lose,” Meyer told the Miami Herald, “you’re going to get an exceptionally hard-working judge rending a reasoned opinion.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.