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Offensive voter registration rules

By Times editorial
Published May 24, 2006

The Florida League of Women Voters has faithfully helped register voters for 67 years, but Republican lawmakers now have put them out of business. Chalk it up to last year's election reform law, and call it a political disgrace.

The league and four other groups that hold voter registration drives have asked a federal judge to intervene, and this should be an easy constitutional call. Florida ranks 39th in the percentage of voting-age residents who are registered, and any attempt to frustrate genuine, nonpartisan, volunteer efforts to improve that rate is offensive.

The "reform" is ostensibly aimed at protecting people whose voter registration forms could get lost or mishandled by such groups, but the penalties and personal liability are so onerous they will keep volunteers from trying. Turn in a form 11 days after a prospective voter filled it out and pay $250. Turn it in after the registration deadline and pay $500. Lose the form and pay $5,000. Lost or delayed by a hurricane? Doesn't matter. The organization can't pay? Then the individual volunteers are on the hook.

The league, which operates on an annual budget of only $80,000, voted in March to suspend any further voter registration efforts. After all, 16 lost forms would put them out of business. Said league president Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti: "We were devastated."

In 2004, elections supervisors did face a crunch as various groups, including, submitted registration forms at the last minute. But the lawsuit alleges that private groups did no worse than the political parties in that regard, including one box from the state Republican Party that showed up 18 days after the deadline. So why does the law exempt the parties?

The potential for partisan gain here is obvious: Republicans like the fact that Democrats do a poor job of voter outreach and don't like the involvement of groups like or the AFL-CIO. But the law is objectionable even if the political motives behind it were pure. Deliberate destruction of voter forms is already a crime, which means the new law mainly inhibits sincere, community-minded voter outreach.

As this election season gets under way, the court is being asked to let the League of Women Voters get back to work, and lawmakers need to declare their intentions. Any state official who would fight to keep the league on the sidelines is aiming to do the same with potential voters.

[Last modified May 24, 2006, 05:25:21]

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