Florida Voter-Registration Law Partially Blocked by Judge

Parts of Florida’s voter-registration law were blocked by a federal judge who ruled that conditions the statute imposes on groups signing up voters are unconstitutional.

Portions of the law “severely restrict” voter registration drives and place “harsh and impractical” restrictions on groups that conduct them, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, Florida, said in yesterday’s decision. He granted an injunction blocking enforcement of some provisions of the law.

Hinkle found unconstitutional a rule requiring voter-drive groups to turn over registration materials to the state within 48 hours of completion or face fines of as much as $1,000. The rule, which makes no provision for mailing in applications, serves little, if any, purpose, even if it doesn’t violate the National Voting Rights Act, Hinkle said.

The statute, which regulates community-based voter registration, also requires groups to give the state the names of every officer or volunteer who solicits and collects applications, Hinkle noted. Registration agents must sign a form that suggests they commit a felony and face five years in prison for sending in applications that include false information even if they don’t know, or have any reason to believe, the information is false, the decision said.

‘Just Wrong’

The form “is just wrong,” Hinkle 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,” Hinkle said.

Other challenged provisions, such as requiring groups to provide information to the state in electronic format and allowing violations to trigger civil actions by the state, are legal and not barred, Hinkle’s ruling said.

Attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Florida and Rock the Vote, 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 groups, said in a conference call. She said she hoped the decision “will help turn the tide” in a surge of restrictive state voting laws.

The Florida Attorney General’s office is reviewing the ruling, Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“I am pleased that central parts of the voter registration law have been upheld by a federal judge,” said Governor Rick Scott in a statement. “This is a vast improvement over the previous system that will help protect the integrity, accountability and enforcement of the voter registration process.”

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

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