U.S. judge gives Florida voters until Saturday to resolve signature challenges

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge on Thursday gave voters in Florida whose signatures on ballots were rejected by county election officials until Saturday afternoon to resolve the challenges as a recount continues in close-fought races for a U.S. Senate seat and governor of the state.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said his ruling was intended to ensure that an estimated 5,000 people who submitted ballots by mail that were rejected by election officials had a chance to have their voices heard.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures — with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection — passes constitutional muster,” Walker wrote. “The answer is simple. It does not.”

His ruling extends until 5 p.m. Saturday the window for voters whose ballots were challenged to confirm their identities.

Initial counts following the Nov. 6 elections showed Republican outgoing governor Rick Scott leading in his bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Ron DeSantis holding more support than Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race.

In both races the margins of victory were below the 0.5 percentage point threshold at which state law requires a recount of ballots. The first round of recount, conducted by machine, is due to end at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday (2000 GMT).

Overall control of the U.S. Senate is not at stake in the Florida race. President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans extended their majority in the chamber while Democrats took a majority in the House of Representatives. But both the Senate and governor’s races are being closely scrutinized as Florida is traditionally a key swing state in presidential elections.

The closeness of the race has thrown up lawsuits on both sides around the validity or not of some votes.

Nelson’s lead attorney in the case, Marc Elias, praised the judge’s ruling on Thursday.

“Big victory in our Florida signature mismatch lawsuit!” Elias wrote on Twitter. “Federal court extends deadline for voters to ‘cure’ their rejected ballots.”

Republicans, who have also filed lawsuits challenging the process, decried Walker’s ruling and the Scott campaign said it would appeal.

“Another day, another chance for Marc Elias to rack up massive legal fees regardless of the blatant hypocrisy … or the damage this will do to Bill Nelson’s legacy,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in an emailed statement.

If the first-round recount finds the margin of victory in either race below 0.25 percent, state law will trigger another round of ballot recounting, this time by hand.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)