TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A trial challenging Florida's new voting restrictions began Monday with civil rights groups moving to block the sweeping Republican election law as an unnecessary burden on the right to cast ballots.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker is hearing the case, which combines a flurry of lawsuits from advocacy groups that sued shortly after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill last spring, proclaiming he was securing election integrity.
The start of the trial marked another chapter in the national debate over voting rights, following a wave of state GOP bills that tightened access to mail and early balloting as Republicans cling to former President Donald Trump's false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis supported the new restrictions even while maintaining that the state carried out an unblemished election in 2020. Still, as he runs for reelection and eyes a possible 2024 presidential run, DeSantis has citied unspecified instances of voter fraud as reason to create a law enforcement agency to investigate election crimes, underscoring the lingering influence of Trump's fraud claims on the Republican base.
Florida's law forbids ballot drop boxes from being used outside of early voting hours and requires election supervisors to assign an employee to watch the drop box or face a $25,000 fine.
It also requires a driver's license number, state ID number or last four digits of a Social Security number to request a mail ballot. A request for a mail ballot is only valid for the next general election rather than two general election cycles, under another of the law's many provisions. Supporters of the law argued the changes were necessary to preserve election security.
During Monday's hearing, Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, told the judge that the law needlessly dissuades voters from casting ballots after an election in which people heavily used mail voting without issue.
"It's just limitations on ways to vote for fears of things that are not happening," she said.
Nationally, Democrats have failed to unite behind federal voting rights legislation that Democratic President Joe Biden, civil rights leaders and other proponents have argued is vital to protecting Democracy in the U.S amid the new state rules.
The most recent push collapsed in January, when Democrats could not persuade holdout senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both Democrats, to change the Senate procedures on a voting package and allow a simple majority to advance it.
The Florida trial is expected to last two weeks, though Judge Walker on Monday signaled it could go longer.