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Judge rejects 'chilling' voter registration law

Groups plan to resume their efforts after an injunction erases fears.

Published August 28, 2006

A Florida law that imposes crippling fines on civic groups that mishandle voter registration cards is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The law, which calls for fines of up to $5,000 per incident and holds volunteers liable if their organizations can’t pay, has a “chilling’’ effect on the constitutional rights of speech and assembly, U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz wrote in her order granting a preliminary injunction.

Seitz noted that voter advocacy groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida halted all voter registration drives because they feared the fines could bankrupt them.

The judge added that the law unfairly exempts political parties.

“While the Court is extremely reluctant to set aside an enactment of the Legislature, given the magnitude of Plaintiff’s First Amendment freedoms at stake in this case, the Third-Party Voter Registration Law’s civil penalties scheme and exclusion of political parties is unconstitutional,” Seitz ruled.

A full trial is scheduled for later this year, but a spokesman for the Division of Elections said the state won’t wait that long to challenge Monday’s ruling.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision and will appeal the injunction,” said spokesman Sterling Ivey.
Meanwhile, third-party groups are free to conduct registration drives without worrying about the fines. Cindy Hall, president of the Florida chapter of the labor union AFL-CIO, a plaintiff in the case, said she has sent a memo to all her branch organizers to crank up voter registration efforts.

“I’m encouraging them because we only have a month to go” before the Oct. 9 deadline to register for the November general election, she said.

The League of Women Voters of Florida, which typically registers thousands of voters every election year, suspended its registration drive for the first time in its 67-year history, said president Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti.

“This is a win for Florida voters and a reaffirmation of the critical role civic groups play in helping tens of thousands of unregistered citizens come into the process and become voters every year,” Wheatley-Giliotti said.

Under the law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, the state would have imposed a mandatory fine of $250 for every voter registration form submitted more than 10 days after the form was collected from a prospective voter, $500 for each registration form submitted after the passing of a registration deadline, and $5,000 for each registration form not submitted at all.

The circumstances didn’t matter — the groups could be fined if a fire or hurricane destroyed the applications. And if the organization couldn’t pay, the volunteer who collected the application could be on the hook.

Lawyers for the state say that the law is needed to rein in groups that mishandle applications voters entrusted to them and that the law doesn’t prohibit anyone from conducting registration drives. They said the law protects voters from showing up at the polls and discovering too late that their application was never filed.

Voter advocacy groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, said there is no evidence suggesting that third-party groups are likelier to mishandle voter applications than the political parties that lawmakers exempted from the fines.

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.
Judge Seitz took note.

“The evidence in this case does not demonstrate a significant problem with voter registration applications from third party voter registration organizations,” she wrote.

The state also argued that fears of the fines are unnecessary because Secretary of State Sue Cobb has the discretion to apply or waive the fees on a case-by-case basis.

But that didn’t calm the fears of third-party groups. Worried that the strict liability clause would scare away volunteers, groups including the League of Women Voters and the labor union ordered their members to stop registration drives — and then they sued.

Seitz ruled that the state failed to prove the fines were necessary, because the state already imposes criminal penalties on those who “knowingly destroy, mutilate, or deface a voter registration form or an election ballot or delay the delivery of a voter registration form or election ballot.”

She also rejected the state’s claim that third-party handling of voter registration forms was a problem. Rather than blame third parties for hoarding and then dumping voter forms on elections officials as part of a political strategy, Seitz blamed “a lack of preparation on the part of the supervisors of elections offices” for confusion surrounding the last-minute rush of forms before the 2004 presidential election.

Ivey, the spokesman for the Division of Elections, said the state hasn’t decided whether to ask for a stay of the injunction while it appeals.

[Last modified August 28, 2006, 22:15:24]

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