Judge Hears Challenge to Florida’s Restrictive Voter Registration Law

At a hearing today in Florida, Rock the Vote joined other civic organizations in urging a federal judge to halt implementation of the onerous voter registration law recently passed in the state of Florida.  While no ruling was made from the bench this afternoon, it is expected the judge will make a decision within the next couple of weeks.  During today’s hearing, the judge stated his understanding of the urgency of the situation and that people are unable to register to vote each day that the law is in effect.
This was the first hearing since Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida PIRG filed suit to block the law in December.  The law imposes new restrictions on community-based voter registration drives, including burdensome administrative requirements, onerously tight deadlines, and heavy penalties for even the slightest delay or mistake. The decision could have significant implications for the ability of thousands of Floridians – particularly young people – to vote this November.
“We are hopeful for a positive outcome that allows us to continue our civic engagement work in the community and throughout the state,”  said Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote. “As the nation’s largest youth voter organization, Rock the Vote has dedicated more than two decades to educating and empowering young people to participate in our nation’s democracy. Efforts like Florida’s new law prevent organizations like Rock the Vote from educating and engaging young people in our political process and go against the very principles our country was founded on.”
Florida law requires that every individual who helps people register to vote be certified by the state, and it requires them to submit each completed voter registration form within 48 hours as opposed to the 10 days previously allowed. Additional administrative burdens and risks of fines and criminal charges imposed by this law have resulted in a mountain of red tape with 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 voter registration and turnout in 2012. Together, these laws could make it harder for up to five million people to vote this November, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, Voting Law Changes in 2012.
The law’s restrictions have forced Rock the Vote to shut down voter registration programs in the state, including its student-led college programming and teacher-led high school civics education initiative.  The League of Women Voters also ceased voter registration activity in Florida, with the result that community-based voter registration efforts have been severely impacted.
“These new voter registration requirements and the penalties for violating them are making it harder than ever to recruit volunteers,” said Anna Eskamani, a senior at the University of Central Florida. “We’re feeling the effects of the law already – and fewer volunteers means that many students won’t have the opportunity to register to vote.”
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.
“This law represents Florida legislators’ third attempt in six years to drown voter registration groups in regulation,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It is unfortunate that we have had to represent Florida’s leading voter registration groups, not once, or twice, but three times in fighting back against the Florida legislature’s repeated attempts to stifle access to voter registration opportunities.”
The restrictions challenged in the suit were enacted by Florida legislators earlier this year as part of H.B. 1355, a broad package of election law changes. The lawsuit, filed in December, argues 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.