tampabay.com

Judge questions new voter registration law

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published August 4, 2006


MIAMI - A federal judge raised questions Thursday about a new Florida voter registration law that exempts political parties from stiff penalties imposed on other groups who violate rules on the handling of registration applications.

Concluding three days of hearings on a challenge to the law, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz asked attorneys representing Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb to explain why the Democratic and Republican parties - as well as 23 minor ones, including the Surfers Party of America and the American Poor People Party - were allowed to play by different rules.

"How do you justify separating them out?" Seitz said during closing arguments in the case.

Lawyer Peter Antonacci, who represents Cobb's office, replied that the state Legislature decided in drafting the law that political parties were already subject to heightened government scrutiny and that third-party groups were mainly to blame for late or missing voter registration forms.

"The Legislature is entitled to make the distinction that political parties are not the source of the problem," Antonacci said. "It is the rest of the world that the Legislature said, 'We're going to keep an eye on.' "

The lawsuit asks Seitz to block implementation of the law, which took effect Jan. 1. Groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to the AFL-CIO say it has caused a complete halt in their voter registration drives this year.

The law imposes fines of $250 for each form that is submitted to election officials more than 10 days after it is collected from an individual and can reach $5,000 for each form that is collected but never submitted. Third-party groups say they have stopped voter registration work because of the potentially ruinous cost of violations.

It was quietly passed in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, which saw national attention focused on Florida as a key battleground state and the registration of more than 1.5-million new voters, nearly twice the number registered in the 2000 cycle.

Wendy Weiser, an attorney for the plaintiff groups, said the law violates the Constitution's free speech protections by threatening political speech as well as the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection by exempting out the political parties. Weiser said there is ample evidence that political parties have also had problems with missing or late forms.

Seitz did not indicate when she would rule but did ask both sides to submit proposed findings by late Monday - the same day as the voter registration deadline for next month's primary. The deadline to register for the Nov. 7 general election is Oct. 9.