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Voter registration groups sue over new Florida election law

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's new election law attracted more legal attention Thursday with a lawsuit from a trio of civic groups that contend the new rules are too burdensome on their voter registration efforts.

The groups — League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund — are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that asks a federal court in Tallahassee to block the registration restrictions in the elections overhaul, which is in effect in 62 of 67 counties.

Attorneys argue the law is unconstitutional and violates the "motor voter" law by imposing burdensome regulations on volunteers and steep penalties for mistakes, such as not turning in voter registration applications within 48 hours. The window used to be 10 days.

The League of Women Voters, which has registered voters in Florida since 1972, suspended its efforts in May when Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, HB 1355, into law. Washington-based Rock the Vote, which seeks to register people ages 18 to 29 across the country, also will suspend registration efforts in Florida in 2012. The group registered nearly 90,000 voters in 2008, it said.

"It's really huge and really tragic," said Heather Smith, Rock the Vote president.

The groups also oppose a change that requires volunteers become registration agents within their organizations. Volunteers must sign an oath warning of prison time and fines, said Deirdre Macnab, League of Women Voters of Florida president.

"You'd really have to be crazy to sign a form like that in order to do one hour of volunteer work," she said.

The sponsor of the overhaul, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, shrugged off the groups' assertion that the law is burdensome.

"When you take voters' information from them, we need accountability for who has that information and what they're doing with it," he said. "They're simply going to be accountable for turning it in timely."

The lawsuit names as defendants Secretary of State Kurt Browning, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Division of Elections director Gisela Salas. The groups' legal team includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University law school.

The Republican Legislature said it passed the measure to combat voter fraud. Opponents, including Democrats and voter advocacy groups, say Republicans engineered the law to reduce voter turnout in 2012, especially among African-Americans and college students.

Thursday's lawsuit comes days after a major speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who warned his agency is "examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes governing third-party voter registration organizations."

A pending federal court review will force Florida to hold its presidential primary in January under two separate sets of election laws: 62 counties under the new law, and five counties, including Hillsborough and Monroe, under the old one. The latter counties need federal clearance of four of the law's most controversial provisions, including the tightened window for turning in new registrations, to ensure they protect the rights of minorities.

Also Thursday, Browning's office announced a campaign to register school districts as third-party voter registration organizations, which would allow students and teachers to sign up as registration agents in their district. That way, districts, and not teachers, would be liable for penalties or fines.

Browning introduced the exception for teachers following news of teachers in Volusia and Santa Rosa counties collecting registrations from students but failing to turn them in within the new two-day limit.

Voter registration groups sue over new Florida election law 12/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 15, 2011 11:13pm]
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