The defenders of a new state law that makes it harder to register to vote can no longer dismiss concerns that it will reduce turnout in the November elections. A new study shows 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote since the law took effect in July than during the same time period in the 2008 election cycle. The law clearly will result in disproportionately suppressing the vote among minorities, college students and other Democratic-leaning constituencies, and the courts should overturn it.
An analysis of registration information published by the New York Times on Wednesday found new registrations have dropped sharply in the eight months since the law took effect. New registrations are down by 39 percent in Miami-Dade County compared to the same period four years ago, the newspaper reported. They are down by some 20 percent in Orange County and Volusia County. And they are down 34 percent in Pasco, 23 percent in Hillsborough (where the law is not even being enforced yet) and 21 percent in Pinellas, county elections officials told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. That is no coincidence, no matter how much state elections officials speculate about other factors.
The new law makes it too difficult and legally risky for independent groups to conduct voter registration drives. It requires groups to register with the state and to list all volunteers who will sign up voters. Volunteers must each swear to uphold election laws, and groups face fines if they don't submit new voter registrations within 48 hours instead of the old 10-day window. No wonder the League of Women Voters has abandoned voter registration drives in Florida after more than 70 years. No wonder that last week Rock the Vote skipped the state when it kicked off its national drive to register high school students.
And what happens when the civic-minded try to register new voters? The New York Times recounted how the president of the Okaloosa County branch of the NAACP registered two new voters on the Sunday of a three-day holiday weekend in January and turned in the forms to the county elections office on Tuesday, less than two hours over the 48-hour deadline. For his trouble, he received a stern warning letter from the state declaring that any future violations of the law may be referred "to the attorney general for enforcement action.'' This is as absurd as the story last fall about the high school teacher who faced similar fines for preregistering 50 17-year-old students.
It's up to the courts to fix this assault on democracy by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature. The League of Women Voters and other groups have filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the voter registration rules on First Amendment grounds. Meanwhile, a three-judge panel in Washington will decide whether to approve three changes in the law in five counties, including Hillsborough, where voting law changes have to be precleared under the Voting Rights Act. Those changes include the burdensome voter registration requirements, the reduction in days for early voting and the expanded use of provisional ballots. The U.S. Justice Department has said in court papers that the state has not proven the new voting law protects minorities from discrimination in those counties.
While the courts deliberate, the law already is having a terrible result by reducing the number of Floridians registering to vote. In a state where 537 votes decided the 2000 presidential election, some 81,000 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than by this time in the 2008 election cycle. That does not add up to high voter turnout in November, and that would be bad for representative government and good for Republicans seeking to defeat President Barack Obama.
The Republican governor and state legislators who support the law say their intent is to combat voter fraud. There isn't rampant voter fraud in Florida. The fraud is that the state's elected leaders sold these election law changes as high-minded reforms when the impact is something else altogether — making it harder for Floridians to exercise their right to vote.