TALLAHASSEE -- A federal judge on Thursday struck down a key part of Florida’s recently revamped election laws, saying the Legislature’s restrictions have made it “risky business” for third-party groups to register new voters.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle told the state it cannot require groups to submit voter-registration forms within 48 hours or face $1,000 fines. Nor can the state force those groups to disclose names of volunteers who don’t collect the forms, Hinkle ruled.
“The short deadline, coupled with substantial penalties for non-compliance , make voter registration drives a risky business,” Hinkle wrote. “If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.”
Hinkle said voter-registration activity is protected speech under the First Amendment. His injunction means that groups will have 10 days to submit voter forms, as they did before the law was changed.
The 48-hour requirement is in effect in 62 of Florida’s 67 counties, but it remains suspended in five others. That’s because any changes in voting laws in those counties must be pre-cleared either by the U.S. Justice Department or a panel of three federal judges in Washington. The state opted for a three-judge panel, which must weigh Hinkle’s decision as it decides whether to pre-clear the 48-hour provision in those five counties: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee, and Hendry.
The judge’s decision is a defeat for the Republican-controlled Legislature that enacted the new restrictions, and Gov. Rick Scott, who signed them into law in 2011. It’s a victory for three grass-roots groups that brought the lawsuit: Rock the Vote, the Florida Public Interest Group Education Fund, and League of Women Voters of Florida, which suspended all voter-registration efforts after the law took effect.
“We are really delighted,” said Deirdre MacNab, president of the League of Women Voters. “It knocks out the poor parts of an unreasonable and unconstitutional law. Our volunteers are eager to get back to work.”
Those groups and Democrats have accused Republicans of a systematic effort to make it harder for groups to register new voters in Florida in a presidential election year.
The Scott administration said it was pleased with the decision because Hinkle upheld its accountability provisions, which include requirements for groups to register with the state and to disclose which groups signed up which voters.
But Hinkle was critical of the way the state went about enacting administrative rules, and said a new state form that warns registration agents that it is a felony to submit false information — even if the agent doesn’t know it is false — “is just wrong.”
As the state lost this legal fight, it faces another likely legal challenge over its efforts to rid the voter rolls of noncitizens.
The state has identified nearly 2,700 potential noncitizens on the voter rolls by comparing the elections database with citizenship data kept by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
In Tampa on Thursday, Scott defended efforts to purge the rolls of noncitizens. “We want to make sure that people register to vote,” Scott said, “but we don’t want people voting in elections [who] aren’t entitled to vote.”
A coalition of voter-advocacy and liberal-leaning groups have sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, demanding that the state cease the electronic hunt for noncitizens. They have threatened to sue the state if it doesn’t stop the practice.
The groups contend that the federal National Voter Registration Act forbids programs to “systematically remove ineligible voters” within 90 days of a federal election (the next one in Florida is Aug. 14).
“We disagree with their interpretation,” said Detzner spokesman Chris Cate. But the agency has not formally responded to the groups’ letter.
The federal law says states can purge voter rolls of noncitizens if it is “provided by state law,” but an attorney for the Advancement Projects, one of the groups that petitioned Detzner, said that applies only to felons or people who have been judged mentally incapacitated — not potential noncitizens, attorney Lida Rodriguez-Taseff said.
State officials have said that as many as 180,000 noncitizens may be on the voter rolls.
On Thursday, Detzner called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to open up its citizen database to Florida to make it easier to track ineligible voters.
“I have a duty to ensure Florida’s voter registration rolls are current and accurate,” Detzner wrote to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Herald/Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-7263.