Florida Republicans intentionally targeted Black voters when they enacted new voting restrictions last year, the justice department said in a court filing on Wednesday.
The department told a federal appellate court that a lower court had correctly evaluated claims of racial discrimination when it came to Florida’s new law. In March, US District Judge Mark Walker blocked new restrictions on the availability of absentee ballot drop boxes, regulations for third party voter registration groups, and a ban on providing food and water to people standing in line to vote. The US court of appeals for the 11th circuit paused that ruling earlier this year while it considers an appeal from Florida officials.
The justice department’s allegation of racial discrimination is significant because the agency carefully chooses when to get involved in voting dispute litigations filed by private plaintiffs, and the department’s voice carries significant credibility in court. After going largely quiet under Donald Trump, the justice department’s voting section has filed challenges to voting laws in Georgia, Texas and Arizona, in addition to filing several briefs in other voting disputes.
An argument in support of a finding of racial discrimination offers a significant legal boost to challengers of the case, though the challenge to the law faces an uphill battle at the deeply-conservative 11th circuit.
The justice department said it agreed with the court’s findings that Florida lawmakers enacted those provisions knowing they would harm Black voters after the 2020 election in which turnout surged. The Florida law, the department said, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting practices.
“The district court’s core factual findings are that, in the face of surging turnout in the 2020 election, the Florida Legislature responded by enacting provisions that impose disparate burdens on Black voters,” DoJ lawyers wrote in their brief. “Which were chosen precisely because of those burdens to secure a partisan advantage. The court’s findings of discriminatory intent are a permissible view of the record based on the entirety of the evidence.”
Florida lawyers dispute that the law is racially discriminatory.
“Facially neutral laws regulating drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots, the return of voter registration forms, and activity at or near a polling place fall squarely within the state’s power to manage “[t]he time, places and manner of holding elections”, lawyers representing the Florida secretary of state and attorney general wrote in a brief to the 11th circuit.
“In concluding otherwise, the district court focused on the distant past and disparities rooted in evidence that was “limited,” “unclear,” “not necessarily representative,” and “not statistically significant.”’
In his March ruling, Walker also took the unusual step of saying the risk of racial discrimination was so severe, Florida needed to get approval from a federal court for the next decade moving for changes in its voting law. The 11th circuit also blocked that portion of his ruling while considering appeal.
The justice department declined to weigh in on whether that remedy was needed, but suggested seeking further clarification from Walker.