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Federal judge hears arguments in election law case

Published Mar. 2, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Voter-registration groups asked a seemingly sympathetic judge Thursday to block a portion of the state's controversial elections revisions passed by the Legislature last year.

The hearing was the first on the merits of the elections law since lawmakers approved HB 1355 last year.

The League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund went to court late last year to ask the judge to throw out the parts of the law putting new requirements on third-party voter-registration organizations.

Lawyers for the groups argued that the new rules — which include submitting the names of those who work for the organization, having volunteers sign forms agreeing not to break the law and turning in registrations within 48 hours instead of the early state deadline of 10 days — were so hard to comply with that the organizations were largely forced to shut down their registration drives.

"This is frankly not a serious law," said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice. Rowland also called the law "a cumulative and unworkable mess" that was foisted upon a state elections division trying to soften the blows through regulation.

Federal Judge Robert Hinkle largely listened to the groups' presentation, inserting an occasional question. But Hinkle bored in on lawyers for the state, peppering them with a list of hypothetical situations where citizens volunteering for voter-registration groups could get caught up in the law.

Blaine Winship, a lawyer representing Attorney General Pam Bondi, argued that the law made sure that groups entrusted with important documents take care of them.

"The purpose of this is to make sure that people actually get registered," Winship said.

"I really don't need the state to help me get my form to them," Hinkle responded.

The hearing Thursday was part of a slate of legal challenges facing the law, which is in effect in 62 of the state's 67 counties.

Hinkle said he would try to rule on the case quickly. If Hinkle issues a preliminary injunction, the law would essentially be frozen unless and until a trial were held.


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