GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement that registration deadlines won’t be extended for Florida voters despite a deadly hurricane is generating Category 5 outrage from voting rights groups who are warning against what they see as de facto voter suppression.
As Hurricane Matthew approached, a Florida elections official told The Daily Beast that the “number one priority is citizen safety and protecting lives,” and didn't want to speculate about how the hurricane might affect voting in the state. But Scott ended any doubt by declaring late Thursday evening that he would not be extending the deadline.
“Everybody has had a lot of time to register,” Scott told the press during a briefing on the storm. “On top of that, we’ve got lots of opportunities to vote: Early voting, absentee voting and Election Day. So, I don’t intend to make any changes.”
The response came after Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told reporters on a conference call that their campaign hoped Florida would extend the deadline due to the circumstances.
The backlash from voting rights groups was swift, and advocates wondered if Scott’s decision had more to politics than his commitment to the people of Florida. Scott is the co-chair of a super PAC that supports Trump’s election.
Florida will not have online voter registration until 2017, meaning that voters need to mail in their registration or deliver it to a government office in person—both which are options limited by the hurricane. Extended deadlines typically benefit groups that are less likely to have already registered, such as young and minority voters.
“This storm has no partisan intentions and severely affects all voters, and potential voters, in very large counties in our state. The Governor shut down coastal communities for two business days, rightfully warning people this storm was life threatening. It is only fair that he uses his same powerful voice and power to extend voter registration for the same amount of days,” argued Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida’s League of Women Voters. “Do the right thing again, Governor Scott, and ensure every Florida citizen has the right to vote in this extremely important election.”
South Carolina, which is reliably Republican and is not a swing state, went the opposite direction on Thursday, announcing that it would extend voter registration deadlines by two days due to the closures of government offices caused by Hurricane Matthew.
“Judged against the actions of his peers, Governor Scott’s decision is out of line with what good governmental administration should provide,” said Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which works on voter rights issues.
Supporters of Scott’s decision may say that the deadline of Tuesday, Oct. 11 is set out in state law, and the law doesn’t explicitly grant the governor the authority to change the deadline.
But in what could set up a legal challenge, voting rights advocates argue that the broad emergency powers of the governor in Florida extend to issuing such an extension, and that Florida law calls for ensuring “maximum citizen participation” and allows for the delay of elections due to a state of emergency.
“Extending the voter registration deadline would ensure maximum citizen participation in the election, provide a safe and orderly procedure for people seeking to exercise their right to vote, and would minimize the danger to which person seeking to register would expose themselves,” argued Goodman.
The decision on whether or not to extend the voter registration deadline is not trivial—polls show a nail-biter of a race in Florida, with the Clinton up by just 3.2 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. And of course, Florida was the crucial state that determined the outcome of the contentious 2000 presidential campaign, in which President Bush won by just 537 votes.
Approximately 50,000 Floridians registered to vote during the last five days of voter registration in 2012, said Earls.
“It’s not surprising that Rick Scott did not heed the call to extend voter registration. He has consistently worked to limit voting rights, especially for Black and Latinos. He has been clear that this hurricane was a grave and serious matter, and ordered everybody everywhere to evacuate,” said Gihan Perera, the executive director of The New Florida Majority, a voting rights group. “NewFlorida Majority, like people across the state, stopped our last surge of voter registration to heed the warnings and make sure that all our people were safe. If there was any way to extend the deadline, that would be a natural thing to do, given the circumstances.”
Scott’s reputation on voting rights is already murky: He reversed an executive order from his predecessor which gave ex-felons a chance to vote after a restitution process. Now, those with non-violent felony convictions must wait five years before applying for a hearing, while others must wait up to seven years.
“Governor Rick Scott’s reputation on voting rights is not good. He has been widely criticized for unfairly denying the restoration of voting rights to people with criminal record histories who have served their time and are productive members of society,” Earls said.
With the hurricane wreaking havoc in his state at a critical time for voter registration, Scott’s legacy on voting rights could improved if he extended the deadline—otherwise, it will be cemented as one of disenfranchisement