Florida Voter Rules Assailed by Judge, Justice Department

Florida’s self-proclaimed effort to battle voter fraud suffered dual setbacks four months before the presidential election as portions of a registration law were blocked and the Obama administration said a state effort to remove non-citizens from the rolls “appears” to be illegal.

Portions of the statute severely restrict registration drives and place “harsh and impractical” limits on groups that conduct them, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee said in a May 31 ruling. He blocked requirements that voter-drive groups turn over completed materials to the state within 48 hours or face possible $1,000 fines. The two-day window, previously 10 days, makes no provision for mailing applications and serves little, if any, purpose, Hinkle said.

Also on May 31, the Justice Department wrote Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, warning that a state program to identify ineligible voters may violate federal law, including one aimed at reviewing voter limits in states such as Florida with a history of racial discrimination. The U.S. told the state to respond by June 6 whether it will cease the practice.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who signed the registration law and ordered the purge, has called both a way to reduce election fraud. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith countered that Republicans are using the rules to help presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama, a Democrat. The law was sponsored by Republicans and passed both Republican-controlled houses of the legislature by a 2 to 1 margin. With 29 electoral votes, Florida is the biggest prize among states both campaigns view as competitive.

Registration Law

The voter law requires that groups give the names of every officer or volunteer who solicits and collects applications. Registration agents must sign a form that states it’s a felony, subject to a five-year prison term, to submit applications that include false information -- even if they don’t know or have any reason to believe the information is false, Hinkle said in his decision.

The form “is just wrong,” the judge said. “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.”

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which sued last year to overturn provisions of the law, said many groups had stopped registering voters because of the legislation.

“Laws that make it harder to participate in the public process should be rejected,” Lee Rowland, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, which represented the group, said in a May 31 conference call. She said she hoped the decision “will help turn the tide” in a surge of restrictive state voting laws.

Left Standing

Hinkle, who was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, let stand challenged provisions such as those requiring groups provide information to the state in an electronic format and allowing violations to trigger litigation by the state.

“I am pleased that central parts of the voter registration law have been upheld,” Scott said in a statement. The Florida attorney general’s office is reviewing the ruling, Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for the office, said in an e-mail. The state may appeal Hinkle’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Non-Eligible

The effort to purge non-citizens from Florida voter registration lists began at Scott’s order. Using a driver’s license database, state officials identified 2,700 non-citizens who are on voter rolls but ineligible to vote. Those men and women were given 30 days to prove citizenship before being removed from the list.

About 58 percent of those singled out by the effort are Hispanics, who account for about 13 percent of Florida’s active registered voters, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald.

The state’s attempt to verify voter eligibility “appears” to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, according to the Justice Department letter from T. Christian Herren Jr., head of its voting section.

Under the Voting Rights Act, federal approval is required for election law changes in five Florida counties because of past racial discrimination. Such state regulations must be submitted for review by a federal judge in Washington and the U.S. attorney general under the Voting Rights Act.

Herren wrote that Florida must submit its new rules “for a determination that they neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”

Removing Voters

The Voter Registration Act forbids removing voters from rolls less than 90 days before a federal election. Florida held its presidential primary Jan. 31 while primaries for all other state and federal offices are scheduled for Aug. 14. As a result, Herren stated, the blackout period has already begun.

Detzner said yesterday in an e-mailed statement that his office will respond next week to the Justice Department’s concerns.

“It is my duty to protect the right of all eligible voters who are able to participate in the process,” Detzner said. “The department will continue to act in a responsible and cautious manner when presented with credible information about potentially ineligible voters. No one that has the right to vote has been denied the opportunity to cast a vote, and as the secretary, it is my duty to ensure that remains the case.”

Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory in Florida, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, over Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election won the White House for Bush. Obama won Florida in 2008 over Republican John McCain by 2.8 percentage points.

“The integrity of the election system is being challenged by both ends of the political spectrum,” Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who studies voter demographics, said in an interview. “Florida is going to be very close and both sides are worried about another election being thrown into the courts.”

The case is League of Women Voters v. Browning, 11-628, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida (Tallahassee).

To contact the reporters on this story: Karen Gullo in San Francisco at kgullo@bloomberg.net; Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee at mbender10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net; Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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