- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A federal judge on Thursday rejected a push by Florida Democrats to alter some of the state’s voting rules following the disruptions caused by Hurricane Matthew.

The Florida Democratic Party, citing a backlog of thousands of voter applications, wanted to allow people to cast a regular ballot during early voting even if their registration applications hadn’t yet been verified.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, saying there was no evidence state officials are delaying the approval of new voters, declared there was no reason to grant the request. He pointed out voters could choose to use a provisional ballot instead. Congress authorized the use of provisional ballots in the aftermath of the chaotic 2000 presidential election recount.

“How is that sacred right undermined by saying you are going to have to vote to use a provisional ballot?” Walker asked Democratic Party attorneys during the roughly three-hour emergency hearing.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott praised Walker for a “common sense ruling” and said it was “disappointing the Democratic Party wasted the court’s time in a partisan power grab.” Scott defended the state law of verifying the identity of voters before adding them to the rolls, saying it was “crucial to make sure we don’t have voter fraud.”

Walker, a federal judge appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, ordered that the state’s voting registration deadline be pushed back from Oct. 11 to Oct. 18 in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. The hurricane scraped the state’s Atlantic coast earlier this month and is blamed for at least 13 deaths in Florida.

Democrats sued to extend the deadline after Scott initially said he would not do it.

More than 60,000 Floridians responded to the new deadline by registering to vote during the extended period. But now state officials acknowledge that they won’t be able to verify their applications until Oct. 29 - five days after early voting is scheduled to start in 50 out of 67 counties including Miami-Dade, Duval, and Orange.

Democrats responded by going back to court and asked Walker to order officials to provide by Sunday a list of those people whose applications have not yet been approved. But they also asked that voters who presented identification at the polls to be able to cast a regular ballot instead of using a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots aren’t counted until after Election Day so that a voter has a chance to prove their eligibility.

“This is not an ideal situation; no one wanted this to happen,” said Kevin Hamilton, an attorney for the Democrats.

The push by Democrats was strongly opposed by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s top election official, as well as the Republican Party of Florida. They warned the change to could lead to confusion among poll workers or the possibility of illegal votes being cast.

Maria Matthews, the director of Florida’s Division of Elections, said that the state has authorized overtime and weekend shifts to process voter registration applications as quickly as possible. She said that 85 percent of applications are quickly approved within 24 to 48 hours after officials crosscheck names against state driver’s license records and federal social security files.

Craig Latimer, the supervisor of elections of Hillsborough County, testified that a regular ballot could not be retrieved even if election officials found out later someone should not have been permitted to vote.

Blaise Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, blasted the Democrats for trying to “use the courts to circumvent Florida voting laws.”

The Republican Party, his statement said, “applauds the ruling of the court for seeing through the chicanery and delivering the correct resolution for the voters.”

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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