Florida Chokes Off Voters, Civic Groups Say


     TALLAHASSEE (CN) - The League of Women Voters and other civic groups claim a new state law unconstitutionally "burdens their efforts" to register voters - punishing them with up to a $1,000 fine for the "untimely delivery" of a voter registration application - and will prevent thousands of Floridians from going to the polls.
     The League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Rock the Vote claim that Florida law 40, which took effect on May 19, "improperly requires all 'third-party voter registration organizations' ... to (i) to pre-register with the state and satisfy cumbersome disclosure requirements 'before engaging in any voter registration activities' and to continually submit electronic updates about their organizational status ... (ii) track, inventory and report every voter registration form they handle on a monthly basis ... (iii) deliver to state election officials all completed voter registration forms within an arbitrarily narrow and vague 48-hour window; (iv) submit all mandated forms electronically ... and (v) incur potentially strict liability for fines ranging from $50 to $1,000 for the untimely delivery of any completed voter registration applications."
     The groups say that "absent an injunction, thousands of Florida citizens will not be registered to vote in the upcoming elections. In violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ... the law will particularly and disproportionately harm members of minority communities, who regularly rely on plaintiffs and similar community-based groups to help them overcome barriers to registering to vote and participating in the democratic process. The law will likewise cause disparate harm to senior citizens, students, people with disabilities, and members of rural and low income communities."
     The groups say, "the law regulates an almost unlimited range of community-based voter registration activity by broadly defining a 'third-party voter registration organization,' to include 'any person, entity or organization' that is 'soliciting or collecting voter registration applications.' ... Through this sweeping ambit, the law chills plaintiffs' constitutionally protected registration activities and penalizes and burdens their political speech and association."
     The 48-hour deadline to submit complete voter registration applications "is extremely burdensome to the plaintiffs for a number of reasons," the complaint states.
     "First, ... if completed forms must first be collected by plaintiffs from their volunteers and then submitted directly by plaintiffs to the state, this would impose an effectively insurmountable barrier to their registration efforts. Plaintiffs each conduct registration activities through a wholly decentralized volunteer force. ... With their existing structures, it would not be possible for plaintiffs to collect every completed registration form from every one of its agents and then submit these forms to state within 48 hours.
     "Second, even assuming that individual agents would be allowed to submit completed forms on plaintiffs' behalf, it would still be virtually impossible for plaintiffs to continue with their traditional model of voter registration under the constraint of a 48-hour deadline. If they continued to conduct voter registration activity, as they have in the past, plaintiffs would be at severe risk of financial penalties and reputational damage for noncompliance."
     The League of Women Voters say the law does not serve state interests, either, as "there is no indication that Florida's existing law was inadequate in addressing the state's interest in preventing voter registration fraud and ensuring the integrity of the registration process. Furthermore, even if the state had discovered shortcomings in the existing law, the new law burdens far more speech and associated activity than is necessary to accomplish any legitimate government interest."
     The complaint adds: "In 2004, before Florida began restricting community-based voter registration drives, Florida ranked 33rd in the nation in voter registration rates, with 71.7 percent of voting age citizens registered. In 2010, after the state imposed successive restrictions on community-based voter registration activity, Florida dropped to 38th in the nation in voter registration rates, with only 63 percent of voting age citizens registered. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (2004-2010). The law can only exacerbate this downward trend.
     "No legitimate state interest justifies the extreme cumulative burdens imposed by the law. The Florida Legislature presented no evidence or other findings that voter registration fraud occurs in Florida in any meaningful magnitude; that the preexisting, three-year-old law regulating community-based voter registration activity, coupled with criminal provisions forbidding registration fraud, has been inadequate; or that community-based voter registration groups have either hoarded voter registration forms or otherwise failed to promptly submit forms to election officials under the prior law.
     "For these reasons, and those specifically alleged herein, plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction prohibiting defendants from enforcing the Law, and permitting plaintiffs' constitutionally protected community-based voter registration activities to continue."
     The plaintiffs say the law violates the 1st and 14th Amendment by placing a burden on core political speech and violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Voting Rights Act.
     Their lead counsel is Kendall Coffey with Coffey Burlington, of Miami.