Florida’s New Election Law Blunts Voter Driveshttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/28/us/re ... .html?_r=2
Florida, which is expected to be a vital swing state once again in this year’s presidential election, is enrolling fewer new voters than it did four years ago as prominent civic organizations have suspended registration drives because of what they describe as onerous restrictions imposed last year by Republican state officials.
The state’s new elections law — which requires groups that register voters to turn in completed forms within 48 hours or risk fines, among other things — has led the state’s League of Women Voters to halt its efforts this year. Rock the Vote, a national organization that encourages young people to vote, began an effort last week to register high school students around the nation — but not in Florida, over fears that teachers could face fines. And on college campuses, the once-ubiquitous folding tables piled high with voter registration forms are now a rarer sight
Florida, which reminded the nation of the importance of every vote in the disputed presidential election in 2000 when it reported that George W. Bush had won by 537 votes, is now seeing a significant drop-off in new voter registrations. In the months since its new law took effect in July, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election, according to an analysis of registration data by The New York Times. All told, there are 11.3 million voters registered in the state.
It is difficult to say just how much of the decrease is due to the restrictions in the law, and how much to demographic changes, a lack of enthusiasm about politics or other circumstances, including the fact that there was no competitive Democratic presidential primary this year. But new registrations dropped sharply in some areas where the voting-age population has been growing, the analysis found, including Miami-Dade County, where they fell by 39 percent, and Orange County, where they fell by a little more than a fifth. Some local elections officials said that the lack of registration drives by outside groups has been a factor in the decline
In Volusia County, where new registrations dropped by nearly a fifth compared with the same period four years ago, the supervisor of elections, Ann McFall, said that she attributed much of the change to the new law. “The drop-off is our League of Women Voters, our five universities in Volusia County, none of which are making a concentrated effort this year,” Ms. McFall said.
Florida’s law — which is being challenged in court by civic groups and, in counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department — is one of more than a dozen that states have passed in recent years that have made it harder to vote by requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, reducing early voting periods or making it more difficult to register.
Republicans, who have passed nearly all of the new voting laws, say the restrictions are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats note that such fraud almost never happens, and say that the laws will make it harder for young people and members of minorities, who tend to support Democrats, to vote.
The law in Florida, which was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, also reduces the number of early voting days in the state. While the effects of those changes may not be seen until the fall, the new restrictions on voter registrations are already being felt — as Sabu L. Williams, the president of the Okaloosa County Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., discovered this year when he registered some voters during the Martin Luther King’s Birthday weekend.
Mr. Williams’s group registered two voters on the Sunday of the three-day weekend, and noted the time, as required by the law: 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. When the local elections office reopened on Tuesday, Jan. 17, the group handed the forms in. They were stamped as received at 3:53 p.m.
This resulted in a warning letter from Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning, who noted that the state can levy fines of $50 for each late application, with an annual cap of $1,000 in fines per group. “In your case, although the supervisor’s office was closed on Monday, Jan. 16, the 48-hour period ended for the two applications on Jan. 17 at 2:15 p.m. and 2:20 p.m.; therefore, the applications were untimely under the law,” Mr. Browning wrote. The letter said that “any future violation of the third-party voter registration law may result in my referral of the matter to the attorney general for an enforcement action.”
Mr. Williams said he could not believe it. “We’re out here trying to register voters, and I’m being threatened for doing it because we missed the time limit by around an hour — and we’re doing it on the first business day they were open!” he said. But he vowed to continue registering voters.
Mr. Cate, the spokesman for the Department of State, said the letter was meant to inform Mr. Williams of the law, which he said was a typical response when the state believed that someone had been unaware of the law and violated it unintentionally. Deirdre Macnab, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed suit with other civic groups to overturn the law. “Basically our volunteers, after 72 years of registering voters problem-free, would now need an attorney on one hand and a secretary on the other to even attempt to navigate these new laws,” said Ms. Macnab, whose organization has sued the state over past restrictions.
Several states place restrictions on groups that register voters. The law in Florida, which is among the strictest in the nation, is similar to one New Mexico passed in 2005, which also imposes penalties for failing to meet a 48-hour deadline for handing in forms. Civic groups challenged the New Mexico law in court and lost. Since the law passed, census data shows, the percentage of New Mexicans who are registered has fallen.
Lee Rowland, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the groups handling the lawsuit for the civic organizations, said they were challenging the Florida law on First Amendment grounds, arguing that speaking to voters and registering them is protected speech.