Editorials

Overruling Florida's onerous attacks on voting

When a federal judge blocked enforcement of a portion of a new state law that clamped down on voter registration drives, phrases in his ruling made even sharper points than opponents of the provision.

The court suspended the requirement that third-party voter registration organizations turn in registration forms within 48 hours or face fines up to $1,000.

"Harsh and impractical," U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his ruling that voter registration drives are protected under the First Amendment's free speech provision. A "virtually impossible burden." "Risky business" for voter drive organizers.

The Tallahassee-based judge also stated in his temporary injunction: "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."

With that ruling, Florida reverts back to the old 10-day time frame for submitting forms to the state -- a span that won't suppress registration drives and thus voting.

That judicial stamp of disapproval rebukes the Republican Legislature and governor for an overreach into restricting a basic freedom. This is a major victory for proponents of broad access to the ballot box.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund filed the lawsuit in December. The league suspended its registration drives over fears the tight deadline exposed volunteers to onerous fines.

Other provisions of the 2011 law -- the reduction of early-voting days and the end of registration changes at polling places -- were upheld by Hinkle. The whole law, though, is under review by other federal judges for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Almost 300 voter-registration groups are registered with the state, though the vast majority of completed voter forms are being filed by a handful of organizations. Two of the most successful groups are the Florida Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Florida.

The Florida Department of State should not pursue an appeal or take the case to a full trial, wasting taxpayer money on a partisan agenda bound to fail.

Gov. Rick Scott suffered another stinging defeat last week when the U.S. Department of Justice ordered Florida to quit trying to purge voting rolls of suspected noncitizens. The federal agency cited violations of two federal laws.

While the governor vehemently denied the purge targeted minorities, some 58 percent of the registered voters being asked to prove citizenship are Hispanic, a Miami Herald analysis discovered.

County supervisors of elections wisely halted the deeply flawed effort Friday. Hundreds of voters had already responded to their letters and proved citizenship.

The Department of Justice gave Florida until Wednesday to respond to its determination that the state violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to gain federal approval of voting changes.

Plus, the National Voter Registration Act requires states complete purges 90 days before a primary or general election, and Florida should have ended the effort in mid-May. The state should not pursue this matter either.

This one-two punch at Tallahassee's full-scale assault on elections should remind state leaders that the voting booth is a sacred place that should be accessible, not barred.

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