ORLANDO Fla. (AP) -- Advocacy groups are suing state and county officials in an effort to change rules so that it's easier for Floridians to vote by mail during the current pandemic.
The lawsuit filed this week in federal court in Tallahassee asks a judge to allow ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day but arrive within 10 days of that deadline. It also wants to allow paid organizers to collect vote-by-mail ballots from voters who require assistance and for the state to pay for postage for mail-in ballots instead of voters.
The Florida lawsuit come as states around the U.S. struggle to hold elections in the face of the highly-contagious new coronavirus. In April, more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during Wisconsin's presidential primary tested positive for COVID-19. Election officials there had to reduce polling stations caused by a shortage of poll workers who stayed home because of the virus.
Other lawsuits challenging vote-by-mail restrictions have been filed around the U.S.
A primary election in August and a general election in November are slotted for Florida, a state known for races with razor-thin margins and infamous recounts. Early indications suggest larger numbers of voters than usual will vote by mail because of virus concerns, but Florida's election system isn't prepared to accommodate the influx of people who want to vote by mail, the lawsuit said.
"The pandemic's impact is not limited to Floridians' health; it also endangers their right to vote," the lawsuit said.
Vote-by-mail burdens that fall most heavily on poor, elderly and student voters include requirements that ballots be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day, prohibitions against paid organizers collecting ballots from voters who need assistance and requiring voters to pay their own postage to mail in a ballot, the lawsuit said.
In 2018, more than 17,000 ballots were discarded because they arrived after the Election Day deadline, according to the lawsuit.
A spokesman for the Florida Department of State, which oversees the state Division of Elections, didn't respond to an email inquiry.
Some Democrats have long argued for greater use of mail balloting as a way to boost turnout, but some Republicans remain wary, suggesting it may not be secure.
Once again, Florida is expected to be a battleground state for the presidential race between Republican President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presumptive presidential nominee, as judges continue to hear cases that will determine who votes and how voters cast ballots in the state.
In the same federal court the vote-by-mail lawsuit was filed, a judge on Wednesday was considering whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers were motivated by partisanship when they stipulated that felons must pay all legal debts before regaining their right to vote under a ballot initiative known as Amendment 4.
Since 2001, Florida has allowed any registered voter to request a vote-by-mail ballot with no need for an excuse. In 2018, close to a third of all ballots cast were by mail.
The groups filing the vote-by-mail lawsuit included Priorities USA, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and Alianza for Progress, Inc. and several voters. Named as defendants were DeSantis, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and election supervisors across Florida.
"For decades, Florida has been ground zero for election mishaps," the lawsuit said. "While 2020 is certainly an unprecedented year, it does not have to be the next year on the long list of Florida election debacles."