Florida’s elections laws take aim at voter registration groups

Are voter registration groups prepared to face more challenges? “It’s a tough question,” said one leader.
Organizers assist and teach attendees during a training session at the Mi Familia Vota office on July 14 in Tampa.
Organizers assist and teach attendees during a training session at the Mi Familia Vota office on July 14 in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published July 21|Updated July 21

In a quiet Tampa office, a group of Hispanic community organizers met with six volunteers, all ready to learn Florida’s voter registration process. One of the leaders, Karolina Dorante, highlighted some achievements.

“Since 2012 we have registered approximately 125,000 citizens,” said Dorante, youth development organizer of Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that works to boost Hispanic voter turnout. “This is important because every day we strive to inspire more people to vote.”

Yet the future for this type of fieldwork feels bleak for dozens of local groups, nonprofits and community organizations in Florida that depend on it. Recent legislation has severely restricted registration drives, a worrisome development for many activists who say these efforts targets minorities and marginalized communities.

Florida made it tougher to vote and engage in civic activities following baseless allegations from former President Donald Trump that his reelection in 2020 was stolen from him. In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill (SB 7050) to increase fines for violations by voter registration organizations, reduce the time to submit voter registration forms from 14 to 10 days, and bar noncitizens from handling voter registration applications.

The bill prevents groups from retaining personal information about people who sign up to vote and requires them to provide receipts to individuals who register. Third-party voter registration groups and nonprofits such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida chapter of the NAACP filed two federal lawsuits against the state regarding certain parts of the bill. Last week, a federal judge temporarily blocked DeSantis’ administration from enforcing parts of the legislation.

In Florida, Latinos account for a larger share (2.5 million) of registered voters than ever before — at 17% in 2020, according to Pew Research Center data. This is up from 2008, when about 1.3 million Latinos were registered to vote, accounting for 12% of Florida’s registered voters.

Voter groups have played a critical role in this demographic shift. According to a recent study by Daniel A. Smith, professor and chairperson of the political science department at the University of Florida, Black and Latino voters are five times more likely to register through third-party groups.

Efforts to restrict third-party organizations have persisted for some time, said Smith, who has been a prominent critic of recent laws restricting voter access.

In 2011, with the passage of HB 1355, the Florida Legislature required groups conducting voter registration drives to pre-register with the state, sign an oath warning of prison time and fines, account for all registration forms provided to and received from their agents, and submit monthly reports with the Division of Elections. In the months after this bill went into effect, overall voter registrations dropped for Black, Hispanic and white voters compared to a similar time frame four years earlier, according to Smith.

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“Gov. DeSantis’ attack on groups conducting voter registration drives is just the latest effort to limit groups on the ground,” Smith said.

Despite the fact that the state has found no evidence of widespread fraud, DeSantis and other Republican officials claimed that the new law would restore confidence.

“We have taken bold steps to ensure Florida is the national leader in conducting fair and secure elections,” said DeSantis in a recent news release highlighting the first year of his Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate election law violations. According to DeSantis’ administration, the Office of Election Crimes and Security “referred” 1,479 cases to law enforcement, but only 13 led to felony convictions. They also reviewed 3,500 voter registrations and fined 39 organizations more than $100,000 for failing to comply with statutory obligations. Infractions included mistakes on applications made by the applicants themselves and forms submitted to the wrong county as a result of those errors.

Abdelilah Skhir, a voting rights policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he’s not surprised.

“Historically, marginalized communities have faced systemic barriers and discrimination that impede their access to the ballot box,” he said. “Lawmakers are aware of that. But voter registration organizations in Florida are resilient and will continue to carry out their work while fighting back against these draconian laws.”

But, are these groups prepared to face more challenges?

“It’s a tough question,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, an organization that has partnered with the state’s elected county supervisors of elections and organized voter registration drives. The League not only registers voters across Florida but also teaches them the history of voting rights, such as Florida’s Amendment 4, which voters passed in 2018 to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. The measure was later changed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, requiring felons to pay off financial obligations relating to their convictions before casting a ballot.

Now, due to the new law and ongoing legal battles, the League of Women Voters of Florida has decided to switch to electronic registration to avoid the rules and penalties associated with paper applications.

“We strive to follow the law, even when it seems unfair,” said Scoon.

Data coordinator Yhoselyn Andrade shows an information page on her phone during a training session at the Mi Familia Vota office on July 14 in Tampa.
Data coordinator Yhoselyn Andrade shows an information page on her phone during a training session at the Mi Familia Vota office on July 14 in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Unfair or not, running afoul of the law comes at a steep price. In May, Mi Familia Vota was fined $6,500. Hispanic Federation was fined $7,500. The violation? Registration forms submitted in the wrong county. Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security assessed the fines, according to The Guardian US, which was first to report on the fines.

Soraya Marquez, Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota, said the fines were erroneous and without merit.

“They occurred because DeSantis keeps changing election laws without giving our communities the time to adjust our practices,” said Marquez.

Since winning reelection, DeSantis has made it tougher to vote by mail, limited the use of ballot drop boxes, and created an investigative force to undermine their constitutionally protected right to vote, Marquez said.

“Mi Familia Vota has a rigorous quality control process that ensures we carefully comply with all laws and regulations,” said Marquez.

Now the group is working to deploy a new strategy called “No Vengo Solo, Vengo Con Diez” (I don’t come alone, I come with 10) to encourage individuals to bring 10 potential voters with the aim of increasing voter turnout. They are planning to team up with local businesses and community organizations, churches and Spanish radio stations, said Yhoselyn Andrade, data coordinator for Mi Familia Vota.

Last week, Andrade shared her ideas on outreach with Venezuelans Andreina Morales and Victoria Marin.

Morales, 24, a naturalized U.S. citizen, wants to register new voters in majority-Hispanic voting precincts. Marin, 31, an asylum-seeker and community organizer, can’t vote, but she is determined to help others participate.

“In one way or another,” Marin said, “we are here to make our voice heard.”