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Voter-aid groups awaiting decision

A ruling is expected on an appeal of a new state law that some say tied their hands.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published August 15, 2006


For 20 years, Mary Berglund carried voter registration forms in her car, ready to hand them out to anyone who needed them.

Some people were first-time registrants. Others had moved or married and needed to update their information.

This year, all are on their own.

"I wouldn't hand them out now," said Berglund, a St. Petersburg resident and longtime volunteer with the League of Women Voters of Florida.

"I can't," Berglund explained, "because there's the moratorium."

The moratorium is the league's decision to suspend voter registration drives - for the first time in its 67-year history - pending a federal court ruling on a new state law that tightened voter registration rules.

That ruling is expected this week.

The state law, passed in 2005 as part of an elections bill, fines third-party groups up to $5,000 per incident if they err in handling voter registration applications, such as turning them in late.

Lawmakers said that the law was needed to rein in some groups that mishandled applications voters entrusted to them and that it doesn't prohibit anyone from conducting registration drives.

"There's nothing in this law that prevents them from going out and doing all the things they do, whether it's at a shopping mall or door to door," said attorney Peter Antonacci, who's defending the state. Those groups made the decision themselves to stop their registration drives, he said.

But voter advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters of Florida, a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking an injunction, say the law could bankrupt them if just one volunteer makes a mistake with a batch of applications.

"My operating budget is $70,000," said Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, president of the Florida league. "If 14 cards get turned in late, you're wiping out my budget."

Meanwhile, the deadline to register for the Sept. 5 primary has passed. If U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz rules in the league's favor, the group likely would have just a couple of weeks to sign people up before the deadline to register for the November general election.

That leaves Wheatley-Giliotti and others with one eye on the court docket and one on the clock.

She said her group doesn't keep statistics, but estimates the Florida league helps "several thousand" Floridians register each election year.

* * *

Blame it on Congress and pregnant pigs.

It was the pregnant pig amendment to the Florida Constitution - plus a couple of expensive ones like the class size reduction and minimum wage increase - that stuck in lawmakers' craw. Legislators decried what they called special interest machinery that opened up shop in Florida, signed up residents to vote and to support a proposed constitutional amendment.

When they heard accusations that ACORN, a special interest group working to pass the minimum wage increase, was withholding Republicans' voter applications, lawmakers hit the roof. (Those accusations were spelled out in a separate lawsuit that has since been dismissed.)

So legislators passed the bill that penalizes voter drive groups for failing to turn in completed registration applications.

Only political parties, including the minor ones, are exempt from the fines.

Groups like the League of Women Voters of Florida say there's no evidence that the political parties are less likely to make mistakes. In fact, they point to a letter by Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn saying that the only late applications she received during the 2004 election cycle came from the Republican Party.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho testified that Democrats were the only violators in his county.

Defending the state, Antonacci said the Legislature has the right to decide who was part of the problem and who wasn't.

"The state's interest is to protect the voter," Antonacci said. "The voter who guilelessly hands his voter registration application over to a third party - that voter has every right to believe his application will be submitted."

Yet it was the voter whom Congress had in mind when it passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993. That law, commonly called the motor voter law because it allowed voters to register when they applied for or renewed their drivers' licenses, also required states to offer mail-in registration.

That paved the way for groups to conduct massive registration drives, in part because mail-in negated earlier requirements that anyone assisting a voter with registration be "deputized" and undergo state training.

Some of the groups that have since launched large-scale drives have let their private interests interfere with the public good, Antonacci said.

Still, groups like the league and the labor union AFL-CIO, which also canceled its voter registration drives, call this law a solution in search of a problem. The real problem, they say, is that too few people are active in the electoral process. They want the injunction as soon as possible so they can get back to signing people up to vote.

"We don't care if they register Democrat, Republican, Independent," Wheatley-Giliotti said. "We don't care."

PENALTIES:

Under the new law, third-party groups that assist in voter registration are subject to the following penalties:

- Submitting a form more than 10 days after it was collected: $250

- Submitting a form after a registration deadline: $500

- Failing - for any reason, including a fire - to submit a form: $5,000

[Last modified August 15, 2006, 07:36:03]


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