TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge has given Democrats a partial victory in the presidential battleground of Florida, extending of the state’s voter registration deadline one day and agreeing to consider a longer extension in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The initial deadline was Tuesday, but Florida Democrats, with the support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, argued that would-be voters deserved more time. Republican Gov. Rick Scott last week urged 1.5 million residents to evacuate as the storm approached the southeastern United States.
District Judge Mark Walker issued a temporary order Monday afternoon extending the deadline through the close of business Wednesday. He set a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. for arguments for a longer extension. Judges grant temporary restraining orders in cases where a petitioner demonstrates irreparable harm would occur if the court took no action. The orders often portend victory once a judge considers the merits of the case.
Clinton had called on Scott, before the suit was filed, to extend the deadline himself using his emergency authority. The governor declined, saying Floridians “had enough time to register” before the Oct. 6 evacuation orders.
Though the case involves the highest stakes in a perennial presidential battleground, the judge called it “poppycock” to claim that “the issue of extending the voter registration deadline is about politics.” The case, he wrote, “is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register to have their votes counted.”
The case comes as the two presidential campaigns try to resume their full activities in Florida and North Carolina, the two battlegrounds where Matthew left fatalities and wracked widespread damage.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence was in western North Carolina on Monday, while Clinton was planning to visit south Florida on Tuesday alongside former Vice President Al Gore. GOP hopeful Donald Trump was also to campaign in Florida the next two days with stops in three cities that are usually GOP strongholds. And former President Bill Clinton has his own Florida schedule Tuesday on his wife’s behalf.
The voter registration dispute is key since both campaigns acknowledge that the storm’s interruptions could yield even marginal effects on voter turnout efforts. North Carolina and Florida remain close, even as Clinton appears to be taking a commanding national lead. Going days without door-knocking and phone-banking around Fayetteville, North Carolina, or registering voters around Jacksonville, Florida, is enough to make Republican and Democratic aides nervous.
“The time for politics will come back, and it will just have to take care of itself,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, which together with the Republican National Committee leads voter turnout efforts for Trump and the rest of the GOP slate.
Woodhouse said GOP campaign offices remained closed in Fayetteville, Greenville and Wilmington.
In his first public campaign appearance since Sunday’s second presidential debate, Pence told a Charlotte crowd that eastern North Carolinians are “inspiring” for their handling of the hurricane. Pence also praised Trump for apologizing after the Friday disclosure of a 2005 NBC video that captured the real estate billionaire making predatory comments about women.
Florida’s voter registration deadline applies to both in-person registration and postmarks for mailed forms.
The initial petition argued that Matthew constituted a “daunting” and “life-threatening obstacle” to registration. Scott’s office said earlier Monday that the governor’s legal advisers were reviewing the suit.
In 2004, then-Gov. Jeb Bush used emergency authority to allow several Florida counties to delay the start of early voting after Hurricane Charley.
Clinton aides declined comment on the suit earlier Monday, but maintain that under normal circumstances, they would have registered tens of thousands of Florida residents in the final five days of registration. President Barack Obama won the state in 2012 by fewer than 75,000 votes out of more than 8.4 million cast. Both Republicans and Democrats have intensified their voter registration efforts since.
Democrats note that South Carolina, another GOP-controlled state, extended its original Oct. 7 deadline to accept registration forms postmarked no later than Tuesday.
Hurricane Matthew drifted farther north than projected when Scott ordered evacuations, leaving south Florida’s heavily Democratic counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — relatively unscathed. Campaign activities there have resumed, with Clinton aides saying only a handful of their 65 offices around the state remained closed Monday, all of them in more Republican north Florida.
North Carolina’s voter registration deadline is Friday, but the state also has same-day registration on Election Day.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.