Florida's voter suppression law taking it on chin in court

March 9, 2012 

In yet another court test of the Legislature's understanding of Florida's Constitution, a federal district judge hints that the state overstepped its bounds with a new elections law that clamps down on voter-registration organizations.

Words uttered a year ago could provide part of the justification for overturning the law, coming back to haunt state Sen. Mike Bennett. Back then, the Bradenton Republican stated during debate on the legislation, "We do make it convenient for people to vote but I got to tell you I wouldn't even have any problem making it harder."

In an ironic turn of events, Bennett is now a candidate for Manatee County elections supervisor.

Plaintiffs are suing over the provision that places onerous rules on registration drives, including the submission of forms to the state within 48 hours instead of the previous 10 days under the old law, and the harsh fines up to $1,000 on drive workers for errors and delays on forms. The new law also requires voter groups and workers to register with the state.

The organizations rightly maintain the new law infringes of First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association.

Since many abandoned registration drives since the law was adopted, Florida's voter rolls have fallen evidence that this is indeed a voter suppression law.

While the law's proponents claim the restrictions will prevent voter fraud, there is scant evidence of any in recent history a fact supported by many county elections supervisors during debate over the legislation.

Hearing testimony in Tallahassee in a lawsuit filed by the Florida League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle grilled the state's special counsel about the grounds for the law.

Upon hearing the law's tough provisions line up with state interests in affirming an orderly process, the judge remarked: "But the state doesn't have an interest in making it hard to vote. That's not a permissible goal."

Which takes the debate back to Bennett's statement last year.

The law is a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to impede and limit the impact of third-party voter registration organizations, which typically sign up more Democratic-leaning voters. The political ramifications couldn't be clearer.

Hinkle indicated last week he would rule quickly on the request for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement until a trial could be held. The law is currently in effect in 62 of Florida's 67 counties.

The law has also come under attack by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is seeking a trial under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Five Florida counties with a history of racial discrimination, including Hardee, Hillsborough and Collier, are covered by the act, which requires federal approval of changes in state elections laws.

A University of Florida elections expert and professor discovered some very revealing information in a study of these five counties, where the state law has yet to be implemented.

Daniel Smith's research found higher early voter turnout for the presidential primary in the five compared with other Florida counties, where the new elections law slashed the number of early voting days including the final Sunday before election day.

This undercuts the argument that the law would not adversely impact access to early voting even in a GOP primary. The effect would likely prove more dramatic in a Democratic primary, Smith notes.

GOP hubris in defense of this partisan elections law continues. But the rule of law should prevail over politics, and we're optimistic this law will be found unconstitutional.

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