Florida recently had its new voter suppression law, Senate Bill 90, put to the test in court. Following a trial in four consolidated cases that took place earlier this year, Chief Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida issued a 288-page opinion striking down the most harmful provisions of the law (which you can learn more about here). Based on the hours of testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits proffered — which we outlined in our “Three Trial Takeaways: Florida’s Voter Suppression Law” — Walker blocked three of the challenged provisions and concluded the following:
- The drop box restrictions, the third-party voter registration organization (3PVRO) voter registration disclaimer and the line-warming ban intentionally target Black voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the 14th and 15th Amendments.
- The 3PVRO voter registration disclaimer constitutes compelled speech — when a law requires an individual to say something that they may disagree with — in violation of the First Amendment.
- The line-warming ban is overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment.
Walker’s findings of fact regarding S.B. 90 speak volumes about how Florida Republicans crafted the law and what their end goals were. Below we summarize some of Walker’s key conclusions following the trial; all quotes and evidence come from his opinion.
Florida Republicans crafted S.B. 90 to favor their party.
We all know that Republicans have been behind the major voter suppression laws passed in the wake of the 2020 election. Florida Republicans passed one of the most egregious laws, S.B. 90, despite the fact that Republican officials who supported the bill previously praised the state’s 2020 election for being smooth and secure. Now a federal judge — whose ruling is based on overwhelming evidence presented during trial — has said the quiet part out loud: Republicans in Florida are intentionally trying to game the election system in their favor. The judge found that S.B. 90 was specifically drafted “with the intent to restructure Florida’s election system in ways that favor the Republican Party over the Democratic Party” and that there was no other legitimate reason behind the law.
The judge based his conclusion on a few key facts that came to light during the course of the trial.
- First, the Republican sponsors of S.B. 90 failed to articulate a genuine reason why the law was needed. Despite the Republican Party’s alleged focus on preventing voter fraud and restoring confidence in elections, the defendants failed to offer any evidence suggesting that Florida’s past elections were not secure. In fact, legislators admitted that S.B. 90 was not intended to respond to any past fraud. As Walker summarized, “Not only is voter fraud extremely rare in Florida, but SB 90’s proponents could not even explain how SB 90 would reduce voter fraud prophylactically.” Republican legislators offered conflicting statements on their reasoning behind S.B. 90 both during the legislative process and at trial, causing Walker to conclude that S.B. 90’s “exact justification…is difficult to pin down, with sponsors and supporters offering conflicting or nonsensical rationales.” One state senator similarly stated that, as legislators, “the rationale for SB 90 ‘was perhaps the most [elusive] answer we faced.’” Republicans created a nonexistent problem and claimed the solution was S.B. 90.
- Second, election supervisors overwhelmingly opposed the restrictive provisions in S.B. 90. The supervisors never suggested that the changes were needed, and many opposed the passage of the bill throughout the legislative process and advocated for less harsh provisions. Even though “the Supervisors did not ask for SB 90, did not want SB 90, and did not like SB 90,” Republican legislators pushed the law through for their own gain. One Republican state senator — who is also the chair of the Florida Republican Party — even texted another Republican legislator that the “real purpose behind” S.B. 90 is “to favor the Republican Party over the Democratic Party.”
- Finally, the timing of S.B. 90 raised some red flags. The Legislature had not passed any election-related legislation between 2013 and 2020, even following the 2018 election when then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) and then-President Donald Trump (R) alleged voter fraud was present in Florida. There were only two new developments that could explain Republicans’ push for S.B. 90: Trump refused to concede that he lost the 2020 presidential election, instead choosing to spread misinformation about nonexistent voter fraud, and Black and Democratic Floridians voted by mail in increasing numbers (to be discussed in the next section).
In summary, Judge Walker determined that, based on all of the evidence before him, the Republican Legislature was not motivated by any real concerns of voter fraud or election security, but instead wanted “to improve the Republican Party’s electoral prospects, not to respond to the general political mood.”
In order to game the system, Republicans targeted Black voters due to their association with the Democratic Party.
Voting in Florida is very racially divided. Based on evidence presented at trial, the judge concluded that white Floridians are more likely to vote for Republican candidates while Black Floridians are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates (Latino Floridians are not strongly affiliated with either party). Looking at the data, this is not a close call either: roughly nine of out 10 Black Floridians typically support the Democratic Party. Because race and party are so intertwined in Florida, Judge Walker concluded that “for White and Black voters in Florida, separating race from politics only works in science fiction.”
Due to this context and the evidence presented during the trial, Judge Walker ruled that, “to advance the Legislature’s main goal of favoring Republicans over Democrats, the Legislature enacted some of SB 90’s provisions with the intent to target Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.” Walker noted that this is not a new occurrence: over the past 20 years Florida has targeted Black voters simply because of their affiliation with the Democratic Party. This pattern made its way into S.B. 90, with Republican legislators changing voting methods most often used by Black voters so that “Every single challenged provision [of S.B. 90] has a disparate impact on Black voters in some way.”
Here are some ways that Judge Walker found S.B. 90 affected Black voters.
White and Latino voters have historically used mail-in voting at higher rates than Black voters. However, in 2020 Black voters’ use of mail-in voting doubled compared to previous years. In particular, Black voters relied heavily on drop boxes for depositing their completed absentee ballots. Based on evidence presented by experts, Black voters casting a mail-in ballot in the 2020 primary and general elections “had, on average, 48% and 25% greater odds, respectively, of voting via drop box than” white voters casting a mail-in ballot. It is not a huge surprise, then, that S.B. 90 targeted drop boxes in ways that specifically affected Black voters’ ability to use them. S.B. 90 limited drop boxes so that they were only allowed at a county’s permanent voting site or an early voting location and only accessible during early voting hours (between 8-12 hours per day). Since “Black voters disproportionately use drop boxes outside of early voting and outside of typical business hours,” Walker concluded that “SB 90 effectively bans drop-box use at the specific times and the specific days that Black voters, not all Democratic voters, are most likely to use them.”
In Florida, minority voters “are, on average, more likely to wait in long lines to vote.” And, since S.B. 90 placed restrictions on mail-in voting, lines could have gotten even longer in response since more people would have had to turn to in-person voting. However, S.B. 90’s vague line-warming ban made it a crime to engage in “any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter” within 150 feet of a polling location — meaning that organizations that used to provide food and water to those waiting in long lines could no longer safely do so without fear of committing a crime. Because of this, the “Court concludes that the solicitation definition will have a disparate impact on minority voters because minority voters are disproportionately likely to wait in line to vote, and because the provision discourages third parties from helping those waiting to vote.”
3PVROs have been instrumental in registering minority voters, so much so that 10% of Black and Latino voters were registered by such an organization, compared to only 2% of white voters. S.B. 90 targeted 3PVROs and their ability to carry out their mission of registering voters, affecting these organizations’ ability to assist minority Floridians in registering to vote. This led Walker to conclude that “the Legislature enacted the registration disclaimer with the intent to discriminate against Black voters—who disproportionately rely on 3PVROs.”
As Walker pointed out, the question before him was not whether Republican legislators are themselves racists. The matter instead was whether race was a motivating factor behind S.B. 90’s passage; the judge concluded that it was after reviewing “all of the circumstances surrounding SB 90’s passage.” Legislators had before them — and specifically asked election supervisors for — demographic data on voting practices, which implies that they knew, on average, the voting methods used by different groups of voters. And, legislators rejected attempts to limit the harshest effects of S.B. 90 on Black voters, ignoring proposed amendments that would have less directly impacted them. The state senator who sponsored S.B. 90 even “openly acknowledged on the Senate floor that SB 90 would have a disparate impact on Black voters.” Despite all of this, S.B. 90 sailed through the Republican Legislature and became law, prompting Walker to conclude that the three provisions he struck down intentionally targeted Black voters due to their affiliation with the Democratic Party.
These actions have real world consequences in voting booths and courtrooms.
Voter suppression laws have tangible effects on real people. Beyond the conclusions described above, thousands of pages of exhibits and hours of testimony paint a picture of complete disregard for voting access in exchange for electoral power. Representatives from voting rights organizations outlined how they drastically scaled back their operations or entirely stopped previous activities out of fear of prosecution, limiting their ability to help voters. These facts support Judge Walker’s conclusion that the line-warming ban and 3PVRO voter registration disclaimer violate the First Amendment.
Due to procedural reasons, the judge did not rule in favor of certain plaintiffs that some of the challenged provisions burdened voters with disabilities. Even so, witnesses and experts provided extensive testimony about navigating this new voting system with a disability. As Judge Walker wrote, the “Court heard deeply troubling testimony from Floridians with disabilities about how much effort they must go through to vote, and I struggle to see how Secretary Lee and the Defendant Supervisors are not moved by the testimony of these citizens.” Going even further, Walker concluded that “it is apparent the Legislature did not think about its disabled constituents when it passed SB 90, resulting in bad policy.”
In an extraordinary move, Walker also placed Florida under preclearance requirements for the next 10 years — a power granted to federal courts under Section 3(c) of the VRA if they find that jurisdictions have engaged in intentional discrimination in voting practices. Under the preclearance requirements outlined by Walker, for the next 10 years, Florida must submit any proposed legislation concerning drop boxes, 3PVROs or line-warming activities to the court for approval. This is designed to block the Florida Legislature from passing similar iterations of restrictive laws to avoid needless lawsuits and the deprivation of voting rights while a case is being litigated. In deciding to place Florida under preclearance, Walker stated that “At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this Court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental.” Walker recognized that, given recent court decisions across the country, the “right to vote, and the VRA particularly, are under siege.” In placing Florida under preclearance and blocking the most harmful provisions of S.B. 90, Walker protected Floridians’ “sacred right to vote—won at great cost in blood and treasure.”
The state has already appealed this decision to the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals and asked the appellate court to pause the ruling while litigation continues, so the future of S.B. 90 currently hangs in limbo pending further action. No matter what, this trial and the conclusions that came out of it show without a shred of doubt that voter suppression laws are a threat to voters and our democracy.