Federal judge strikes down part of state election law because it imposes “harsh” restrictions on groups that register voters

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A federal judge has issued an injunction barring enforcement of part of the state’s new election law, saying that a 48-hour deadline for groups to turn in new voter registration forms is “harsh and impractical.” Most of the rest of the law, however can stand, Judge Robert Hinkle wrote.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote, and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (PIRG) filed a lawsuit in December challenging the restrictions. Today, after considering the evidence submitted by the parties and hearing arguments earlier this spring, a federal court preliminarily blocked enforcement of most of the law, finding that Plaintiffs are likely to win on their claims that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

“Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one’s rights in a federal court. … [W]hen a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever,” U.S. Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote in his opinion blocking most of the Florida law. “And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy.”

“Today’s ruling is a clear victory for Florida voters,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, one of the attorneys who argued the case for the Plaintiffs. “The Florida legislature has tried repeatedly to stifle access to voter registration opportunities. By halting onerous provisions of the law, the court has stood up for voters and for civic groups across the state helping Floridians register to vote.”

Key aspects of the ruling

  • “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. But if the goal is to further the state’s legitimate interests without unduly burdening the rights of voters and voter- registration organizations, 48 hours is a bad choice.” [Page 8]
  • “Even if the limitations on mailing do not render these provisions unconstitutional, they plainly run afoul of the National Voting Rights Act.” [Page 12]
  • “Allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy.” [page 25]

Reactions

ACLU’s Howard Simon:

“This is a resounding victory for the Constitution and Florida citizens against a clear attempt to suppress political participation.”

Florida Democratic Party Chair Rod Smith:

“As we have stated from the beginning, the GOP’s voter suppression law is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to keep Floridians from making their voices heard at the polls. Under Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Republican’s have led an unprecedented assault on voting rights – a basic right of all Americans – and it must stop. Today’s decision is a victory for the people of Florida and a defeat to the extremist GOP leadership in Tallahassee. “

Brad Ashwell of the Florida Public Interest Research Education Fund:

“Our representative democracy relies on an engaged citizenry, yet voter turnout in Florida remains far too low,” added  “That’s why we work to sign up thousands of first time voters across the state each election cycle. We are pleased the court froze the majority of this law, so we can continue to fulfill this mission.”

Senator Bill Nelson:

“This law clearly was designed to stop people from voting, and I’m glad to see the judge’s ruling.”

Robert Atkins, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP representing the plaintiffs:

“We are pleased that our clients and civic groups all across the State of Florida demonstrated the intimidation and threat of punishment created by this unconstitutional law.”

Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote:

“As the nation’s largest young voter organization, we’ve dedicated more than two decades to educating and empowering young people to participate in our nation’s democracy. Rock the Vote has encouraged hundreds of thousands of young Florida residents to have a voice in their community and country. Today’s ruling is a victory for them, and for our democracy. We will quickly assess whether this ruling will allow us to restart our critical voter registration work on the ground in Florida.”

Developing…

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.