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Judge strikes down part of Florida's election laws

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's ruling came on the same day the Department of Justice told Florida to cease its search for noncitizen voters.

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 the 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 crucial 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."

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Judge strikes down part of Florida's election laws 05/31/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 1, 2012 12:27am]
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