By: Ethan Emery
The month of October saw an election case with the potential for a serious impact on the 2016 election resolved in federal court. The result was a week-long extension of voter registration. This case arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew as a direct result of the natural disaster’s effect on the state.
Matthew hit the Southeast US, including Florida, early on October 7. The effects of the storm continued to be felt for the next two days. Though the impact on Florida was substantially less severe than many had feared, thousands were still impacted, and large portions of the state were left without power or water.
The original deadline to register to vote was Tuesday, October 11, mere days after the storm moved away from the state. The Florida Democratic Party sued Florida Governor Rick Scott on Sunday, October 9, on the grounds that “…the storm forced voters ‘to choose between their safety and the safety of their families, on one hand, and their fundamental right to vote, on the other hand.’”
Federal Judge Mark Walker (for the Northern District of Florida) ruled that the deadline had to be extended one week, with a new end date of October 18. His short opinion specifically noted the importance of the vote, stating: “No right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy.”
The truly notable element of this case, however, is the number of new voters that registered during the extension. In excess of 100,000 additional registrations were completed in the extra week. Over 75,000 of those had been verified as of October 24, with almost 35,000 more awaiting verification as of that date. For comparison, two of the last four presidential election totals in Florida have fallen within that range. Barack Obama’s margin of victory in Florida in 2012 was just under 75,000 votes. George W. Bush’s margin in the 2000 election was famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) much, much smaller.
Recent projections have the 2016 Presidential election in Florida likely within the margin these additional registered voters create. Moreover, the volatility of the polling surrounding the various swing states makes it entirely possible that Florida could serve as the tipping point for the Presidential election. It is within the realm of possibility that these additional registrations could represent the tipping point for the Electoral College, deciding the next President of the United States.
Due to the potential of late registrations to represent substantial portions of the voting population, this ruling sets an important, though non-binding, precedent with regards to voter registration deadlines in the face of extenuating circumstances. The likelihood of hurricanes and tropical storms hitting the Southeast around future elections is relatively high, without even discussing the possibility of other natural disasters or crises. However, affirmation by a Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court will be necessary if this protection is to be broadly applied beyond the state of Florida in the 2016 election. That being said, within the context of the 2016 election, this ruling represents an important footnote in a complex election season.