Clear evidence of Florida law’s voter suppression

One of the burdensome stipulations of Florida’s year-old elections law is one more signature away from invalidation. Strict restrictions on voter registration drives, ruled as violations of the First Amendment’s free speech provision in June, will no longer apply once a federal judge signs a permanent injunction banning the rules.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle indicated last week he intends to sign that order once a federal appeals court dismisses the state’s appeal of Hinkle’s preliminary order. Since Florida announced its intentions to withdraw its appeal, this is all but a done deal.

The clamp-down on third-party and independent voter registration drives required organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Rock the Vote to turn in registration forms within 48 hours or face $50 fines for each late form up to a total of $1,000 per year. The previous state law provided a 10-day deadline.

The two organizations, along with the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, sued the state in December.

In initially blocking the law, Hinkle described it as “harsh and impractical,” a “virtually impossible burden” and “risky business” for voter drive organizations.

He also wrote: “If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.”

That is exactly what occurred. The League of Women Voters suspended all registration drives over fears that the unreasonable 48-hour deadline exposed volunteers to the fines. The number of new registered Democrats fell significantly.

The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville reported last week that during the 13-month July-August time span ahead of the 2004 and 2008 elections, the number of registered Democrats surged by an average of almost 210,000 voters. But since Florida’s new elections law went into effect in July 2011, the number amounted to a little over 11,000.

On that count, this so-called voter suppression law succeeded. Unless the nonpartisan league and Rock the Vote — which combined target the disenfranchised poor, elderly, young and minority populations, which typically vote Democrat — can make up for lost ground, this November’s election could hinge on that steep decline in registered Democrats. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 9.

The Times-Union also noted that during the same three time periods cited above, Republican registration rose to about 128,000 over the past year, well above the 103,000 average from the 2004 and 2008 presidential cycles and an indication that voter registration drives greatly benefit Democrats.

The Republican Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott contend the elections law is aimed at eliminating voter fraud, almost nonexistent in Florida. However, the impact clearly tilts more toward voter suppression.

As a swing state vital to victory in presidential elections and known for narrow margins in those votes, the 11-month-long crackdown on registration drives could swing the election.

Other provisions of the 2011 law — primarily the reduction in the number of early-voting days from 14 to eight — were upheld by Hinkle. But a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. determined the reduction violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the five Florida counties under the law’s provisions because of past discrimination. The court found a shorter schedule deters African-Americans from voting.

While the court blocked implementation of the law in those counties, the judges ruled Florida would comply by increasing early voting hours from 48 to 96 over those eight days. Elections supervisors in four counties agreed, but not Monroe County’s Harry Sawyer.

A Republican who is retiring after 24 years in office, Sawyer has stated the number of days are more important and he would offer 12 from Marathon to Key West. He has indicated hopes that the court will approve his early-voting plan.

Civil rights activists and Democratic politicians are defending Sawyer, arguing the eight-day schedule is unfair to black voters.

But Scott insists Monroe County fall in line and even issued a threatening statement that he would “take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed.”

This unreasonable and indefensible provision of the new elections law is further evidence of voter suppression.

We encourage Sawyer to maintain his position. Ultimately, we hope the court strikes down the reduction in the number of early-voting days.

On Friday, that occurred in Ohio when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking a state law that eliminated voting three days before Election Day except for military personnel and Ohioans living overseas.

Here again, states should not be trying to restrict access to our democracy.