Federal Judge Protects Voter Registration Efforts in Florida

Today a federal judge in Florida blocked enforcement of the most onerous parts of a new state law that was preventing civic groups from helping to register new Florida voters this election season.

Over the past year legislators in states across the country have been pushing restrictions to make it harder for young people to register and vote, such as outlawing state university issued ID cards as valid identification to vote, changing residency requirements that make it all but impossible for out-of-state students to vote, and restricting voter registration drives which help young people register to vote. The Florida restrictions are part of this unprecedented assault on young people’s ability to participate fully in elections. Enacted last year, the law’s onerous fines and restrictions had forced groups like Rock the Vote to shut down efforts to educate and engage young voters in the state.

“This is a huge win and sends a strong signal to officials in Florida and other states that if you erect barriers to registering voters, we will fight back,” said Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote. “The ruling today serves as a reminder that voter registration activities are a fundamental and protected part of our democracy.  We are hopeful that our volunteers can now get back to the civic engagement work we’ve been doing successfully around the country for two decades: engaging young people in their communities and educating them on the electoral process.”

“Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one’s rights in a federal court. … [W]hen a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever,” U.S. Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote in his opinion blocking most of the Florida law. “And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy.”

In his ruling today, Judge Hinkle specifically acknowledged that the Plaintiffs are likely to prevail in their suit arguing that Florida’s restrictions violate the First Amendment rights to free speech and association and the National Voter Registration Act. His decision strikes down a punishing requirement that each completed voter registration form must be submitted within 48 hours, as opposed to the 10 days previously allowed. The decision also strikes down the requirement that all volunteers sign an intimidating form before registering others to vote. Today’s ruling cuts through the mountain of red tape that has had the cumulative effect of depressing and in some cases preventing community-based voter registration drives.

Attorney General Eric Holder singled out the law in December as an example of legislation that restricts Americans’ ability to cast a ballot. Indeed Florida’s law is just one of a wave of restrictive voting measures and proposals that threaten to reduce youth voter registration and turnout in 2012. Together, these laws could make it harder for up to five million people – especially young, minority and elderly citizens – to vote this November, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, Voting Law Changes in 2012.

“The judge’s decision will enable us to go back out and recruit volunteers so that more eligible students will have the opportunity to register to vote,” said Anna Eskamani, a senior at the University of Central Florida. “We hope our elected officials will stop trying to prevent us from voting and focus instead on helping young people and other Floridians exercise our fundamental right to make our voices heard.”

The attorneys representing the civic groups are with the Brennan Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, and leading pro bono law firms Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and Florida-based Coffey Burlington.

“Today’s ruling is a clear victory for Florida voters,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, one of the attorneys who argued the case for the Plaintiffs. “The Florida legislature has tried repeatedly to stifle access to voter registration opportunities. By halting the law, the court has stood up for voters and for civic groups across the state helping Floridians register to vote.”

The restrictions challenged in the suit were enacted by Florida legislators last year as part of H.B. 1355, a broad package of election law changes. The lawsuit, filed in December by Rock the Vote, League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida PIRG, argued that Florida’s restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution or federal law in three main ways: (1) they violate Plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected rights of speech and association; (2) they fail to give individuals and groups fair notice of how to comply with its confusing and unclear mandates; and (3) they violate the National Voter Registration Act – a federal law designed in part to encourage community-based voter registration activity.