Voter advocacy groups declared victory Wednesday after a federal judge permanently struck down what he called "harsh and impractical" restrictions on voter registration imposed by the Legislature.
The order by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee removes a provision that third-party groups registering new voters must turn in all voter forms within 48 hours or face fines of up to $1,000. In a preliminary order in May, Hinkle wrote that the Republican-controlled Legislature's 48-hour rule made signing up new voters "risky business" in Florida.
"If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus also make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed," Hinkle wrote, calling voter registration drives "core First Amendment activity" protected by the Constitution.
Hinkle's order ratified a settlement between the state and several voter advocacy groups that had challenged the new law, calling it a roadblock to democracy.
The order means that voter registration groups have 10 days to return voter forms, which had been the law.
The 48-hour provision was part of an overhaul of state election laws (HB 1355) that the Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in May 2011. Several groups filed a lawsuit last December, calling the restrictions a partisan scheme to discourage voter registration efforts and suppress turnout in the upcoming presidential election in Florida.
"The crushing part of this law was the 48-hour return time," said Lee Rowland of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "This order is a decisive victory not only for our clients but for Florida voters as well."
The Brennan Center represented Rock the Vote, Student Public Interest Research Groups, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"This order ends a pointless and regressive barrier to the fundamental right to vote," said ACLU staff attorney Julie Ebenstein.
After Hinkle issued his first ruling on May 31, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters of Florida resumed voter registration activity in the state. An aggressive effort to register new voters in 2008 was cited as a factor that contributed to Barack Obama's victory in Florida, the nation's biggest battleground state.
The deadline to register to vote to cast a ballot in the presidential election in Florida is Oct. 9.
A spokesman for the state elections division, Chris Cate, said that despite Hinkle's ruling, core provisions of the law were upheld. Cate said they include requirements that third-party groups register with the state, disclose their paid agents and identify themselves on voter forms.
"Third party organizations will be held accountable for turning in registrations on time and properly," Cate said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.