Florida Restrictions on Voter Registration in Florida Have Groups Opting Out

LetPeopleVoteFlorida, which is expected to be a vital swing state once again in this year’s presidential election, is enrolling fewer new voters than it did four years ago, as prominent civic organizations have suspended their voter registration drives because of what they describe as onerous restrictions imposed last year by Republican state officials.

The state’s new elections law — which requires groups that register voters to turn in completed forms within 48 hours or risk fines, among other things — has led the League of Women Voters, which has been registering voters in Florida since 1939, to put its efforts on hold this year. Rock the Vote, a national organization that encourages young people to vote, began an effort last week to register high school students around the nation — but not in Florida, where the new law would put teachers at risk of fines for any errors with the forms. And on college campuses around the state, the once-ubiquitous folding tables piled high with voter registration forms are now a rarer sight.

Florida, which taught the nation the importance of every vote in the disputed presidential election in 2000 when it reported that George W. Bush had won by 537 votes, is now seeing a significant drop-off in new voter registrations. In the months since its new law took effect in July, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period four years ago, in the last run-up to a presidential election, according to an analysis of registration data by The New York Times.

It is difficult to say just how much of the decrease is due to the restrictions in the law, and how much to demographic changes, a lack of enthusiasm about politics or other circumstances, including the fact that there was no competitive Democratic presidential primary this year. But new registrations dropped sharply in some areas where the voting-age population has been growing, the analysis found, including Miami-Dade County, where they fell by 39 percent, and Orange County, in the Orlando area, where they fell by a little more than a fifth. Some local elections officials said that the lack of registration drives by outside groups has been a factor in the decline.

In Volusia County, where new registrations dropped by nearly a fifth compared with the same period four years ago, the supervisor of elections, Ann McFall said that she attributed much of the change to the new law. “The drop-off is our League of Women Voters, our five universities in Volusia County, none of which are making a concentrated effort this year,” Ms. McFall said.

Florida’s law — which is being challenged in court by civic groups and, in counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department — is one of more than a dozen that states have passed in recent years making it harder to vote by requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, reducing early voting periods, or making it more difficult to register.

This month Pennsylvania became the latest state to pass a law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, even as the Justice Department moved to block similar laws in South Carolina and Texas on the grounds that they would disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters. Republicans, who have passed nearly all of the new voting laws, say the restrictions are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats note that such fraud almost never happens, and say that the laws will make harder for young people and members of minority groups, who tend to support Democrats, to vote.

Chris Cate, the communications director for Florida’s Department of State, which oversees the state’s elections division, questioned how much of the decline in registrations should be attributed to the new law, noting that four years ago Floridians were registering to vote in both Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, and gearing up for a constitutional amendment about property taxes, which generated interest and enthusiasm. “To suggest the new elections law had a greater impact on voter registration than the election ballot itself is a leap of logic,” Mr. Cate said.

The law in Florida, which was passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, also reduces the number of early voting days in the state. While the affects of those changes may not be seen until the fall, the new restrictions on voter registrations are already being felt — as Sabu L. Williams, the president of the Okaloosa County Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., discovered this year when he registered some voters during the three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Mr. Williams’s group registered two voters on the Sunday of the three-day weekend, and noted the time, as required by the law: 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. When the local elections office reopened on Tuesday, Jan. 17, the group handed the forms in. They were stamped as received at 3:53 p.m.

This resulted in a warning letter from Florida’s Secretary of State, Kurt S. Browning, who noted that the state can levy fines of $50 for each late application, with an annual cap of $1,000 in fines per group. “In your case, although the supervisor’s office was closed on Monday, Jan. 16, the 48-hour period ended for the two applications on Jan. 17 at 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m.; therefore, the applications were untimely under the law,” Mr. Browning wrote. The letter said that “any future violation of the third-party voter registration law may result in my referral of the matter to the attorney general for an enforcement action.”

Mr. Williams said he could not believe it. “We’re out here trying to register voters, and I’m being threatened for doing it because we missed the time limit by around an hour — and we’re doing it on the first business day they were open!” he said. But he vowed to continue registering voters.

Mr. Cate, the spokesman for the Department of State, noted that the letter was meant to inform Mr. Williams of the law, which he said was a typical response when the state believed that someone had been unaware of the law and violated it unintentionally. “We send letters providing information about the law much more often than we recommend fines,” he said.

Other groups have stopped registering voters, saying that the new restrictions are too onerous. Deirdre Macnab, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, has filed suit with other civic groups to overturn the law. “Basically our volunteers, after 72 years of registering voters problem-free, would now need an attorney on one hand and a secretary on the other to even attempt to navigate these new laws,” Ms. Macnab said, noting that her organization had been in court with the state over previous laws that tightened the restrictions on voter registrations.

A number of states have placed restrictions on third-party groups that register voters. The law in Florida, which is among the strictest in the nation, is similar to one that New Mexico passed in 2005, which also imposed penalties for failing to meet a 48-hour deadline for handing in completed forms. Civic groups challenged the New Mexico law in court and lost. While the number of registered voters in the state has risen since it passed, Census data shows that the percentage of New Mexico citizens who are registered has fallen to its lowest level in decades.

Lee Rowland, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is one of the groups handling the lawsuit for the civic groups, said that they were challenging the Florida law in part on First Amendment grounds, arguing that speaking to voters and registering them is core protected speech. The state took issue with what it called the “pervasive sky-is-falling hyperbole” of the civic groups, saying that the new law does not impinge on their free speech rights. The state said that the law was designed to make sure voters had their registrations handed in quickly and that outside groups did not overwhelm local elections officials by hoarding their registration forms and delivering them all at once near the deadlines.

Last Friday, on the anniversary of the passage of the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, Rock the Vote kicked off its national program to educate and register high school students, though not in Florida. “It’s a real shame,” said Heather Smith, the president of Rock the Vote, which joined the lawsuit. “We just cannot put those high school teachers at risk.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 27, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a constitutional amendment Florida voters were gearing up for in 2008. The amendment had to do with property taxes and not defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Link to original article from The New York Times


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FL Legislators with ALEC Ties

House of Representatives

  • Rep. Larry Ahern (R-51), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Ben Albritton (R-66), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting, sponsored 2005 SB 436 "Castle Doctrine Act" based on ALEC model[52]
  • Rep. Michael Bileca (R-117), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Jeff Brandes (R-52), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[52]
  • Rep. Jason Brodeur (R-33), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force member, registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Rachel Burgin (R-56), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-73), ALEC member who has "attended one conference to date, having paid for the membership and any conference costs with my excess campaign account"[53][51]
  • Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-45), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Fred Costello (R-26), "could not afford the time out of my business to attend" the 2011 ALEC Annual meeting but looks "forward to attending ALEC in the future"[54]
  • Rep. Steve Crisafulli (R-32), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51] but "not a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council"[55]
  • Rep. Daniel Davis (R-13), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Jose Diaz (R-115), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Chris Dorworth (R-34), dues-paying ALEC member as of 2011[56], registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Brad Drake (R -5)[17]
  • Rep. Clay Ford (R-3)[17][20], ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force member, registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Rich Glorioso (R-Longwood), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[52]
  • Rep. Matt Hudson (R-101), ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force member, registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Clay Ingram (R-2), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[57][51]
  • Rep. Ana Rivas Logan (R-114), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Debbie Mayfield (R-80), ALEC member[58]
  • Rep. Peter Nehr (R-48), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Bryan Nelson (R-38), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[52]
  • Rep. Jimmy T. Patronis, Jr. (R-6), ALEC State Chairman[59], registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Ray Pilon (R-69); Public Safety and Elections Task Force
  • Rep. Scott Plakon (R-37), ALEC International Relations Task Force member, worked with ALEC in 2011 on "a proposed constitutional amendment that prohibits laws that would force people to join health care plans, an attack on federal health care changes"[52]
  • Rep. Stephen L. Precourt (R-41), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force member, registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Lake Ray (R-17), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Kelli Stargel (R-64), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. John Tobia (R-31), attended 2009 ALEC Annual Meeting at a taxpayer cost of $1,150; [60] in August 2011 claimed he has not attended another ALEC meeting and is not a member[61]
  • Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-116), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. Will Weatherford (R-61), registered to attend 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[51]
  • Rep. John Wood (R-65), ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force member who calls himself "proud to be a member of ALEC and has attended two annual conferences - Atlanta in 2009 and most recently New Orleans in 2011"[62][51]
  • Rep. Dana Young (R-Tampa), attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting[52]
  • Former Rep. Bill Posey (now Congressman, R-Rockledge), ALEC Alumni in Congress[63] and 1999 recipient of ALEC "Legislator of the Year" Award[64]

Senate

Information from Sourcewatch:

PR Rank