(The Root) — Two contentious efforts regarding voting in Florida, led by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, suffered major setbacks on Thursday. In a legal one-two punch, both were struck down.
First up: a provision in a state law that requires anyone who registers voters to hand in all registration forms no later than 48 hours after they're completed. The previous deadline was 10 days, allowing organizations enough time to ensure that forms are filled out correctly.
Under the stricter new law, if a form is handed in after the 48-hour window, the register could face criminal charges and up to $1,000 in fines per application. The penalties have been considered so draconian that the state's League of Women Voters shut down its registration activities. And since the law took effect last May, 81,471 fewer Floridians have been registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 election.
On Thursday a federal judge issued an injunction barring the state of Florida from enforcing the 48-hour-deadline provision of its new election law, calling the requirement "harsh and impractical."
Tallahassee federal Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his strongly worded ruling (pdf): "The short deadline, coupled with substantial penalties for noncompliance, make voter-registration drives a risky business. 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."
A hearing on June 15 will determine how the case against Florida's voting law will proceed. The state also has 30 days to appeal.
Purging Florida's Voter Purge
Next: Gov. Scott's initiative to purge voters whom he suspects might be noncitizens from the state's voter rolls. County elections supervisors were ordered to send letters to 2,700 previously registered residents last month, telling them that they're ineligible to vote unless they report to the county with proof of their citizenship. Recipients had 30 days to respond or be summarily removed from the voting rolls.
Upping the ante last week, Florida elections officials issued a second list of 53,000 voter names to county officials, calling on them to start the process for another purge.
The first list of 2,700 voters, about half of whom are Hispanic, was compiled by the comparison of data from the state's motor vehicle administration (residents with temporary visas can obtain driver's licenses in the state) with the voting file. The method has been slammed for being riddled with errors, with more than 400 people thus far submitting birth certificates or other proof of citizenship.
"Database matching programs are notoriously unreliable. Data entry errors, similar-sounding names, and changing information can all produce false matches," explained the Fair Elections Legal Network in a release challenging the purge, which also noted that residents under temporary status could have well been naturalized since completing old DMV forms. "Further, it places the burden of proof on the voter, who must respond within 30 days to a notice letter that could easily be lost, misplaced, or inadvertently ignored."
On Thursday the Justice Department stepped in. Because Florida's process had not been cleared with the DOJ, as stipulated under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the agency sent a letter to Florida's secretary of state demanding a stop to the massive purge of its voter rolls. Florida must now submit the procedure it is using for federal review. Furthermore, since the effort got started less than 90 days before the upcoming state election, the DOJ said that the purge also appears to violate the National Voter Registration Act.
"Please advise whether the state intends to cease the practice," the letter concluded, "so that the Department can determine what further action, if any, is necessary."
Civil Rights Groups React
Voting rights and advocacy groups, which have been challenging Florida's strict regulations, celebrated the news. Of the DOJ action on Florida's voter purge, Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, said, "It is essential for the integrity of our elections process that we stop the disenfranchisement from occurring … and not allow the state of Florida to stand in the way of legitimate voters trying to exercise their basic democratic rights."
On the federal court decision to block severe guidelines and penalties in the state's voter-registration law, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said, "This law is a blatant and malicious attack on the rights of Florida's citizens and those who seek to ensure their participation in upcoming elections. As the court noted, many parts of this law are harsh, impractical, burdensome and unconstitutional. We hope that the courts take the next step and strike this law down permanently."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.