Federal Judge Overturns Draconian Voter Registration Rules in Florida

Say goodbye to Florida's 48-hour deadline rule for groups handing in voter registration applications.

By Brentin Mock Jun 01, 2012

Florida scored a second big victory yesterday (here’s the first one) came in federal judge Robert Hinkle’s decision to strike the 48-hour deadline rule for groups handing in voter registration applications. Before Florida’s HB 1355 law was passed last year, completed registration applications could be turned in within 10 days, allowing for those staging voter registration drives to do quality control checks to make sure forms were filled out accurately. But under HB 1355, a person wishing to register voters has to first register with the state to obtain an identification number — a provision left untouched by the judges ruling — and then had to turn voter registration forms in literally 48 hours after the minute it was signed. That last part is no joke — each voter registration form has to have the third-party registration organization’s state-issued ID number, date, hour and minute of form completion on it. If the form is handed in after the 48-hour window, the registrar could face penalties, in some cases up to $1000, even if the forms came late due to a natural disaster, car accident or got lost in the mail.

Judge Hinkle called this part of the law "unworkable" and "burdensome" on those practicing their constitutional right to register people to vote. Despite all of the entanglements that came with Florida’s law, the chairman of Florida’s Republican Party Lenny Curry couldn’t see what was wrong with it to begin with. According to news reports, he was disappointed with the judge’s ruling. When I spoke with him earlier this week, days before the ruling to discuss the prickly details of Florida’s new voter registration rules, and why it may deter some, he said that registering voters in the state was actually "easy." The number of US states with as many voter registration requirements to comply with: zero.

"It’s not something that’s not easy to comply with," Curry told me, clearly comfortable with double negatives. "It is very easy to comply with. When groups are registering people to vote it’s just good controls, you have to have good internal controls in place."

When asked about the concern that having such a short window would make for less time to do quality control checks, Curry said: "They ought to get it right on the front end. If you’re going to register voters and make sure that it is United States citizens who are the ones who actually have been registering to vote, you have to invest the time upfront. This is how the real world works, how the private sector works and this is how government should work. The real world works on tight deadlines and we should expect the same in government and on the right to vote."

Judge Hinkle doesn’t seem to agree with this logic. He wrote in his ruling: "If ‘closed at the end of the 48-hour period’ is what the statute means, it still imposes an onerous, perhaps virtually impossible burden, at least in some instances. If a voter-registration organization collects a voter-registration application at 8:03 a.m. on Saturday and the appropriate voter-registration office is closed for the weekend, reopening at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, must the organization deliver the application to the voter-registration office between 8:00 a.m. and 8:03 a.m. on Monday? If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work. Otherwise there is little reason for such a requirement."

Bold is mine because it must be noted that if discouragement is the goal, then it has been working. The New York Times has reported that over 80,000 fewer Floridians have registered to vote as of May 2012 than during the same period before the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that black and Latino Floridians are more than twice as likely to register to vote through community-based voter registration drives than white voters, who tend to vote more by absentee ballot. Conservatives claim that these laws are needed to weed out voter fraud, but the ACLU in Florida shows that there more instances of shark attacks than there are fraudulent voting. Politi-Fact backed that up finding only 49 investigations — not even convictions — of fraud since 2008.

On top of striking the 48-hour window, the ruling also lifts requirements that anyone who’d be considered a "registration agent" — any employee or volunteer who randomly might stumble upon an occasion to help a group register people to vote — sign a form stating that if they didn’t comply with the law they’d be charged and penalized as a felon.

"This is not the law; the form is just wrong," said Judge Hinkle in his ruling. "Requiring a volunteer not only to sign such a statement, but to swear to it, could have no purpose other than to discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected, activities. This is especially true for a person who merely hands out flyers; why must that person be warned of a possible felony prosecution?"

The judge also struck a provision mandating that any third party voter registration organization keep an accounting of every voter registration form in their possession through monthly reports to the state. Said Judge Hinkle, Requiring a voter-registration organization to count the applications it gives out and gets back from employees or volunteers and to file monthly reports on this imposes a burden for no legitimate reason."

Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida and Heather Smith president of Rock the Vote both said they were eager to get back to work now, but that they needed to parse through the judge’s ruling some more with Brennan Center attorneys to make sure they knew with certainty what they would and would not be able to do moving forward. Florida’s HB 1355 voter law is a 158-page bill with thousands of lines outlining dozens if not hundreds of rules for how voting practices must be conducted.

Said Smith after the ruling, commenting that before this they had to stop a program that registered high school students to vote: "Our mission is to register voters. We are anxious to get back out there to do that."

Before this ruling, Macnab told Al Sharpton that "These new laws frighten people from registering voters." But after yesterday’s ruling she said, "We are so delighted and relieved with today’s court decision."

Judge Hinkle stressed the urgency of now in terms of lifting the law, stating in his ruling that "When a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever. .. Allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives–thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote–promotes democracy."

This isn’t the last word, the state has 30 days to appeal and there will be a hearing June 15 to determine how the case against Florida’s voter registration law will move forward.