Court hears arguments over controversial election laws

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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, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

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 — was 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 and repeatedly pushing lawyers to identify the state’s interest in tightening rules on organizations.

Blaine Winship, special counsel for state programs litigation for 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.

Hinkle focused in part on a provision requiring any voter registration forms returned by mail to either arrive within the 48-hour window or be clearly postmarked within that time. Hinkle noted that the mail sometimes takes more than two days to arrive and that postmarks are often unclear, and questioned whether that effectively closed off the ability of the groups to use the mail.

“How would any prudent organization ever mail in a form that it collected at a voter registration drive under this statute?” asked Hinkle.

Hinkle also seemed troubled by the form that volunteers would have to sign before collecting voter registration forms for an organization. The form notes the maximum penalties for filing false registrations, but doesn’t note that the law requires any violation to be “willful.”

As with some of the other problems Hinkle brought up, Winship said some tweaking of the state rules that flow from the law might be necessary — but said that wasn’t a reason to block the law as unconstitutional.

“I think the word ‘willful’ should be there,” Winship said. “I think that can be fixed.”

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.

The bill has to be “precleared” under the Voting Rights Act before going into effect in five counties because of a history of discrimination in those areas. The state has taken the unusual approach of asking a three-judge panel to weigh the bill, instead of the U.S. Justice Department.

Another lawsuit filed by former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano challenges a provision of the legislation requiring someone to be registered as a member of a party for a year before running for office in that party.

Argenziano, a Republican during her time in the Legislature who became a registered Independent, wants to run for Congress as a Democrat.

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 was held.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.