By Steve Bousquet
A federal judge on Wednesday extended Florida's voter registration deadline through next Tuesday because of widespread disruption caused by Hurricane Matthew that could result in people not being able to register in time to vote.
At a 40-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker approved the Florida Democratic Party's request for an injunction that will give people six more days to register, and give third-party groups that much time to continue to sign up new voters.
"This is a significant issue," Walker said from the bench. "There is no right more precious than having a voice in elections. The right to have a voice is the very reason for our country's existence."
Florida's voter registration deadline of Tuesday, Oct. 11, was extended by one day through Wednesday by Judge Walker before the hearing.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and other voter registration groups, such as the New Florida Majority and Mi Familia Vota, also supported the extension.
They told the judge that even with the extension, some people who want to vote won't be able to because their naturalization ceremonies to become U.S. citizens have been delayed until after Oct. 18.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, were both represented by lawyers in Walker's courtroom. But the state was largely silent and took no position for or against the deadline extension.
"The secretary takes no position," Detzner's attorney, Adam Tanenbaum, told the judge.
Judge Walker had ruled earlier that Scott was not a proper party to the case because of a gap in state law that prevents the governor from ordering new voter registration deadlines. Had Scott ordered an extension, the judge said, it likely would have triggered lawsuits challenging his right to act.
Scott declared a state of emergency in Florida last week and issued evacuation orders to more than 1.5 million residents, directing them to flee their homes as Matthew stormed up Florida's east coast.
Democrats told the judge that the storm forced closings of county election supervisors, tax collectors and driver's license offices that are the most common voter registration sites in Florida.
Lawyers cited research by Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, who found that young voters and minority voters are most likely to register to vote closest to an election.
"It's a win for the people of the state of Florida," Democratic Party lawyer Kevin Hamilton said after the hearing. "As the judge said, the right to vote is critically important to all Florida citizens. This is the right decision."
According to testimony presented in court, Smith found that 116,000 people registered to vote in Florida in the final week before the registration deadline in the last presidential election in 2012, and that nearly half of them (44 percent) were between the ages of 18 to 29.
Judge Walker, 49, is a University of Florida law school graduate and a former public defender and circuit judge in Tallahassee.
President Barack Obama nominated him to the federal bench in 2012 and the U.S. Senate confirmed him on a 94-0 vote.
Before issuing his verbal order, the judge briefly summoned Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho to testify.
Sancho, who is retiring after 28 years in office, spoke of the strain on his staff caused by Hurricane Hermine, which struck the Tallahassee area on Sept. 1, two days after the primary election.
The judge gave all 67 counties until next Monday, Oct. 17, to designate all of their early voting sites for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
South Carolina, a state also damaged by Hurricane Matthew, extended its voter registration deadline, and Georgia, also in Matthew's path, encouraged more people to register online -- an option that is not available in Florida.
In two recent cases, Florida elections deadlines were altered.
After Hurricane Andrew ravaged parts of Miami-Dade in August 1992, a state judge, citing "exceptional circumstances," delayed the county's primary election for one week and ordered results in statewide and multi-county races to be sealed until Miami-Dade voted.
In 2008, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order that extended early voting for two days, citing a "historic" turnout in Barack Obama's first campaign.
Florida has more than 12.5 million voters, with thousands more joining the rolls each week.
All voters, regardless of their party affiliation, can vote in the Nov. 8 election.
In Florida, Democrats are usually more aggressive at registering new voters closer to the fall election.
The party has focused its energy on young people, African-Americans and Hispanics, especially on the Interstate 4 corridor that bisects the state in Orlando and is considered crucial territory in presidential elections.
On Wednesday, a trickle of residents streamed into Pinellas County elections services to register to vote. Areli Huapilla came by Largo elections office to drop off a registration application filled out by her 19-year-old brother, Jesus. He couldn't do it himself because he works during the day as a landscaper. Huapilla, 27, has been pushing her family to register the last few days.
"I just feel like their voice needs to be heard," Huapilla said.
Huapilla, who works as a volunteer canvasser for the Hillary Clinton campaign, said she has a 23-year-old sister and 20-year-old brother who live in Tampa that she told to head to the DMV. She also reached out to another cousin and uncle to make sure they registered.
The deadline extension was helpful, she said, giving her one more day to carry out her mission.
Her parents were born in Mexico. She and her relatives have taken issue with Republican nominee Donald Trump's comments about race and nationality, specifically when he called Mexicans drug dealers and rapists and said he would build a wall at the border to keep them out.
One of Huapilla's cousins encouraged her to register before the gubernatorial election two years ago. Now, she has become the one pushing family members to vote.
"I told my family, 'Just go do it. It takes like, five minutes,'" she said. "It's really easy."
Tampa Bay Times staff writers Megan Reeves and Kathryn Varn contributed to this story.
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