Judge Nixes Unfair Florida Limits on Voter Registration

     (CN) - Florida put unconstitutional limits on community-based voter-registration activities, a federal judge ruled.
     The League of Women Voters of Florida and other organizations that conduct voter-registration drives challenged the 2011 statute, claiming that it unconstitutionally burdened their efforts to register voters and prevented thousands of Floridians from registering for the upcoming elections.
     They claimed that the law disproportionately harmed minorities, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, students and other citizens who rely on community-based groups for help with voting registration.
     The statute, which took effect on May 19, 2011, required third-party voter registration organizations to deliver completed applications to a voter-registration office within 48 hours of receiving them. The groups also took issue with "cumbersome disclosure requirements" and record-keeping provisions.
     Though Florida claimed that the law aimed to combat vote fraud, its provisions would have a big effect on voter turnout in the swing state, which will likely attract the eyes of the nation in the November presidential election.
     The groups asked the federal court in Tallahassee to block enforcement of the law, which they accused of overly burdening core political speech and violating the National Voting Rights Act of 1993.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle agreed Thursday that some of the provisions were unconstitutionally vague and would likely conflict with the National Voting Rights Act.
     In a 27-page ruling, he rejected the state's contention that the activities of voter-registration groups do not implicate constitutional rights. In fact, some of the challenged provisions touched on "constitutional rights of special significance," such as speech and voting, Hinkle said.
     Although the state has a substantial interest in having voter-registration applications promptly delivered to the appropriate office, the harsh 48-hour deadline placed an unnecessary burden on voter-registration groups and discouraged voter-registration drives.
     "The short deadline, coupled with substantial penalties for noncompliance, make voter-registration drives a risky business," Hinkle wrote. "If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed. But if the goal is to further the state's legitimate interests without unduly burdening the rights of voters and voter-registration organizations, 48 hours is a bad choice."
     Opponents of the law noted that the 48-hour deadline made Friday afternoon registration efforts useless.
     The law imposed up to $1,000 in fines in a calendar year for failure to turn in voter-registration applications "within 48 hours after the applicant completes it or the next business day if the appropriate office is closed for that 48-hour period."
     Calling the 48-hour provision "virtually unintelligible," Hinkle also criticized its "disregard of a voter-registration organization's interest in mailing in completed voter-registration applications rather than hand delivering them."
     Though a rule crafted to accommodate mailing says that the application need only be postmarked within two days after the voter-registration group receives it, the plaintiffs cannot rely on things beyond their control, such as a clear postmark on each application at the time of delivery, the ruling states.
     "The burden that this statute and rule impose on a voter-registration organization's use of the mails, coupled with the absence of any legitimate state interest on the other side of the balance, probably renders these provisions unconstitutional," Hinkle added.
     Provisions of the law also conflicted with the National Voting Rights Act, which encourages voter-registration drives.
     Hinkle balked at a provision that requires voter-registration groups to provide identifying information for all their employees, including volunteers who hand out flyers, but do not collect or handle applications.
     He also said it was likely unconstitutional for the state to require employees and volunteers who collect voter registrations to sign a sworn statement acknowledging they could be imprisoned for up to five years for sending in applications containing false information, even if they don't know the information is false.
     Whereas the injunction will not harm the state, "the plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not issued, first because the denial of a right of this magnitude under circumstances like these almost always inflicts irreparable harm, and second because when a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever," the decision states.
     Hinkle barred enforcement of several sections of the law, but allowed other provisions to stand, such as rules requiring voter-registration organizations to include identification numbers on the back of each application and to submit information electronically.