By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Florida residents were given six extra days to register to vote in the Nov. 8 election by a U.S. judge on Wednesday following the disruption triggered by powerful Hurricane Matthew in the state last week.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee extended the registration deadline to Oct. 18 after the Florida Democratic Party sued to seek more time. The original deadline to register had been Tuesday, before Walker ordered a one-day reprieve to allow for a hearing on Wednesday.
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Florida Democrats had argued that voters were forced to decide between their safety and their right to vote when Republican Governor Rick Scott ordered evacuations along a stretch of the state's Atlantic coast as Matthew approached.
"No right is more precious than having a voice in our democracy," Walker wrote in a three-page court ruling on the lawsuit.
Florida is a battleground state in the Nov. 8 presidential election pitting Democrat Hillary Clinton against Republican Donald Trump, with opinion polls showing a close race there. It is the largest of the hotly contested states whose populations can swing either to Republicans or Democrats and thus play a decisive role.
The powerful hurricane, which killed around 1,000 people in Haiti as it churned through the Caribbean, is blamed for at least 30 deaths in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. North Carolina now faces flooding from swollen rivers.
In its complaint, the Florida Democratic Party alleged that the state's refusal to extend the voter registration deadline would have a "decidedly partisan effect," noting that populations that lean Democratic, including minorities and younger voters, register in greater numbers just before the deadline.
It also noted that areas affected by Matthew have substantial populations of black and Latino voters who would be disproportionately likely to register to vote at the last minute.
In past presidential years, up to 20 percent of all new registrations in Florida were filed during the week before the deadline, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which helped bring the lawsuit.
"While we wish it had not taken a lawsuit to get the Scott administration to do the right thing, today's ruling is a major victory for all Floridians and for the democratic process in the Sunshine State," the state Democratic Party said in a statement.
The judge earlier ruled that Florida law did not give Scott authority to extend voter registration and that he was not a proper party to the case.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee also named in the lawsuit, was empowered to do so, Walker noted.
"The State will follow the court’s decision and discuss with the Legislature possible amendments to current law," Scott's office said in a statement earlier in the week.
South Carolina extended its registration deadline due to Matthew from Oct. 7 to Oct. 11, while Georgia declined to do so.
North Carolina will not extend the regular deadline to register to vote, which ends on Friday, although allowances will be made for delayed mail delivery of registration forms, state officials said on Wednesday. However, those who miss the deadline can still register and vote on the same day during the statewide early voting period from Oct. 20 through Nov. 5.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)