A federal judge has temporarily blocked Florida from enforcing elements of its controversial law that tightens voter registration efforts.
Judge Robert Hinkle in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida found on May 31 that, for purposes of a preliminary injunction, some of law’s provisions were “harsh and impractical” and “serve[d] little if any purpose.”
The ruling pertained to a requirement that groups conducting voter registration drives, such as the League of Women Voters, must turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours. Failure to do so can result in fines up to $1,000.
That requirement “effectively prohibits an organization from mailing applications in,” Hinkle wrote.
The injunction also blocked record-keeping and reporting requirements for registration drives that the judge described as “burdensome.”
The registration requirements were part of an election law overhaul that the Florida Legislature passed last year. In addition to the provisions addressed in Hinkle’s ruling, the law reduces the number of days of early voting; requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots; and reduces the time that signatures on citizen-led ballot initiatives are valid. Critics of the GOP-led changes assert that the law will suppress voter turnout and help Republicans win the fall elections.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in December are the League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group. They allege that Florida’s law infringes on their rights of speech and association and fails to give citizens instructions on how to comply.
Representing some of the plaintiffs is the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The center estimates that at least 180 bills to restrict voter registration have been introduced in 41 states since the start of 2011. Those bills include voter identification laws, requirements that voters show proof of citizenship and restrictions on absentee voting.
Hinkle wrote in his ruling that the 48-hour voter registration deadline and the fine for failure to comply “make voter-registration drives a risky business.” Registration groups previously had 10 days to return the forms.
In addition, some of the record-keeping and reporting requirements served no legitimate interest of the state, Hinkle said. One of those provisions requires volunteers who hand out registration forms to sign a sworn statement that they will obey voter registration laws under possible penalty of imprisonment.
“Requiring a volunteer not only to sign such a statement, but to swear to it, could have no purpose other than to discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected activities,” he wrote.
In granting the preliminary injunction, Hinkle found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their challenge, and that they “easily” met the requirements to obtain the injunction.
A spokesman for the Florida Secretary of State’s office issued a written statement in response to a request for comment. The department said that it was “pleased” that the judge had “upheld the most important provisions of the third-party registration law.” They include requirements that those who collect voter applications must register with the state and include their organizations’ registration number on the forms.
“We are disappointed that the court issued a preliminary injunction against other portions of the law and are considering our options. Some of the court’s concerns may be able to be resolved through rulemaking,” the department said.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said that recent changes in voter registration laws in Florida and elsewhere constitute a “significant cutback” in voter rights.
“Today’s decision makes clear that laws that make it harder to participate in the political process should be rejected,” she said.
Also representing the plaintiffs are attorneys from the ACLU of Florida and law firms Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Coffey Burlington.
Daniel Nordby, an attorney with the Florida Department of State, represented the government. He declined to comment.
Contact Leigh Jones at email@example.com.