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Expert: New law may reduce voter turnout

Published July 26, 2006

MIAMI - A new Florida law imposing heavy fines for voter registration violations could suppress turnout in elections and hamper the ability of labor unions, grass roots groups and other organizations to sign up people who wouldn't ordinarily vote, a political science expert testified Tuesday.

Yale University political science professor Donald Green also told a federal judge that the law makes it catastrophically risky for such groups to mount voter registration campaigns because of the high potential costs of violations.

"It seems to trample on basic constitutional rights of association and expression," Green said at a hearing in federal court. "It's essentially like creating a political moat around certain kinds of groups. They simply will not conduct voter registration drives."

Green, a registered Republican who has written a new book on voter turnout, testified on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida AFL-CIO and other groups and unions that are challenging the registration law that took effect Jan. 1. All of the witnesses who testified Tuesday were called by the groups challenging the law.

The groups want U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz to issue an emergency order blocking the law in time for this fall's elections and ultimately seek to have the law declared unconstitutional. Seitz plans at least one more day of hearings and has not said when she will rule.

"My objective is to get it right the first time and do it as swiftly as possible," the judge said.

The law exempts political parties from a list of new fines when deadlines are missed for handing in voter registration forms. The fines range from $250 for each form submitted more than 10 days after the applicant completed it to $5,000 for each form that is completed but never submitted to election authorities.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Sue Cobb and the state Division of Elections say the registration drives themselves do not amount to free speech protected by the constitution and that the legislation is necessary to hold third-party organizations accountable.

[Last modified July 26, 2006, 05:28:50]

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