Civil rights and voting rights advocates are applauding a federal court judge’s decision that blocked a Florida election law that opponents say severely hampers groups from conducting voter registration drives.
“This decision is the first step towards turning back the egregious assault on voting rights that Florida passed into law last year,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said. “This law is a blatant and malicious attack on the rights of Florida’s citizens and those who seek to ensure their participation in upcoming elections.”
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle described as “harsh and impractical” a law that required groups holding voter registration drives to turn in their forms within 48 hours after collecting them.
"If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed," Hinkle wrote in his decision.
Florida’s 48-hour requirement made it almost impossible for groups like the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to conduct their usual voter registration efforts. The rule was so onerous that the league stopped trying to register voters.
The law is partly responsible for 81,471 fewer people registering to vote in Florida this year over the same period before the 2008 presidential election, according to an analysis in March by The New York Times.
“When a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever,” Hinkle wrote in his decision. “And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives, thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote – promotes democracy.”
Florida election officials had aggressively enforced the 48-hour rule. On the Sunday of the three-day Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend, the Okaloosa County Branch of the NAACP registered two people to vote and noted the time they were registered – 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. – as the law requires.
But because the local election office was closed for the holiday Monday, local NAACP officials handed the registration forms the next morning. The elections office stamped the forms as being received at 3:53 p.m., which produced a stern letter to the NAACP branch from Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning.
“In your case, although the (election) supervisor’s office was closed on Monday, Jan. 16, at 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m., 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.”
Browning added: “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.”
Florida’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature now have to go back to the drawing board in terms of laws regarding third-party voter registration. In addition to striking down the 48-hour rule, Hinkle also rejected a provision that requires groups to notify the state within 10 days if any voter registration volunteer or employee stops working for the organization.
The judge said the provision imposed “burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional.”
NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze called Hinkle’s decision a “critical victory in the fight to protect the voting rights of thousands of Floridians who will depend on third-party, non-partisan groups like the NAACP to register for upcoming elections.”
“The NAACP is now better positioned to help our community ensure their voices are heard at the ballot box.”
In addition to the NAACP, organizations ranging from the National Council of La Raza to the youth-oriented Rock the Vote opposed the 48-hour rule and are fighting other provisions in Florida’s election laws praised Hinkle’s decision.
“The ruling today serves as a reminder that voter registration activities are a fundamental and protected part of our democracy,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. “We are hopeful that our volunteers can now get back to the civic engagement work we’ve been doing successfully around the country for two decades: engaging young people in their communities and educating them on the electoral process.”
Rock the Vote, the NAACP and others believe that the 48-hour rule and new voting laws passed last year by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and GOP governor are naked attempts to suppress the votes of the Democratic Party’s key bloc – blacks, Hispanics, poor, young and elderly voters.
Florida has been at the epicenter in the voting rights battle in this country ever since the disputed count in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Since Republican Gov. Scott Rick Scott took office, the Sunshine State has moved aggressively to make voting more difficult – if not impossible – for some of its residents.
The state is currently in the process of eliminating people it suspects aren’t U.S. citizens from the voter rolls. Among the 180,000 people targeted for purging was a 91-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y.-born World War II veteran.
One of Scott’s first acts as governor was rescinding an executive order by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, that reinstated voting rights to Florida convicted felons who served their time.
The state legislature followed up by passing a curious measure that shortened the early voting period in Florida and eliminated voting on the last Sunday, something that the GOP-controlled state government in Ohio is now considering.
Black churches in Florida and nationwide used the last Sunday before the November 2008 presidential election to conduct “Souls to the Polls” efforts in which worshippers went en masse straight from their pews after service to their polling stations.
The effort was credited in helping President Barack Obama win Florida. Blacks made up only 13 percent of Florida’s voters in 2008 but were 22 percent of the state’s early voters. Blacks accounted for 31 percent of voters on the final Sunday before the election.
Some Florida black clergy members who attended the Conference of National Black Churches convention in Washington, D.C., last week said losing that last Sunday could hurt their voter turnout efforts, but added that they won’t let it deter them.
“We have a challenge, and we’re not going to let these rules hinder us,” African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop McKinley Young told McClatchy Newspapers. “We worked hard in 2008 and we’ll work even harder in 2012.”