Brennan Center Lawsuit: Federal Judge Examines Florida’s Restrictive Voting Law

March 1, 2012

League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and Florida PIRG Filed Lawsuit to Block Florida Voter Registration Restrictions

For Immediate Release: March 1, 2012

Contact:

Erik Opsal

Brennan Center for Justice

646-292-8356

erik.opsal@nyu.edu

Deirdre Macnab

League of Women Voters of Florida

407-415-4559

floridaleague@earthlink.net

Chrissy Faessen

Rock the Vote

202-368-1706

chrissy@rockthevote.com

Brad Ashwell

Florida PIRG Education Fund

850-294-1008

brad@floridapirg.org

Media Office

ACLU Foundation of Florida

786-363-2737

media@aclufl.org

Tallahassee, FL– A federal judge today will hold a hearing on Florida’s controversial election law, which places onerous restrictions on community-based voter registration drives. The judge will decide whether to block enforcement of the law while the court considers Plaintiffs’ claims that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes.

The hearing, set for 12 p.m. today, comes after the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (PIRG) filed a lawsuit in December challenging the restrictions.

Florida’s law is just one of a wave of restrictive voting measures that passed in 2011. Together, these laws could make it harder for up to 5 million people to vote this November, according to the Brennan Center’s report Voting Law Changes in 2012.

The restrictions challenged in the suit were enacted by Florida legislators in 2011 as part of H.B. 1355, a broad package of election law changes. They include extremely burdensome administrative requirements, unreasonably tight deadlines for submission of completed forms, and heavy penalties for even the slightest delay or mistake. These restrictions are so unnecessarily harsh that they forced the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, among other groups, to shut down voter registration programs in Florida — even as voter registration rates have continued to decline in the state.

“For over 72 years, League volunteers have faithfully and successfully helped to register eligible Florida voters,” explained Deirdre Macnab, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “Sadly, Florida’s anti-voter law creates impassable roadblocks for our volunteers, who are simply trying to bring fellow citizens into our democratic process. Today, we take a stand against these unacceptable barriers to voting and voter registration.”

“As the nation's largest young voter organization, we've dedicated more than two decades to educating and empowering young people to participate in our nation's democracy,” stated Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote. “Through our volunteer youth-led programs on campuses and in communities to our civics education initiatives in high schools, Rock the Vote has encouraged hundreds of thousands of young Florida residents to have a voice in their community and country. We are outraged at these new laws that will prevent opportunities for youth civic participation; it is simply un-American."

“Our representative democracy relies on an engaged citizenry, yet voter turnout in Florida remains far too low,” added Brad Ashwell of the Florida Public Interest Research Education Fund. “That’s why we work to sign up thousands of first time voters across the state each election cycle. It’s unfortunate that rather than find ways to bring new voters into the fold, the Florida legislature is instead targeting groups that help attract new voters. This law will inevitably lead to fewer voters at the polls.”

Many voter registration groups regard the new law as an attempt to regulate voter registration drives out of existence by burying such efforts in red tape and threatening volunteer-based organizations with massive fines. The Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters also filed lawsuits against Florida’s two prior laws restricting community-based voter registration.

“This law represents Florida legislators’ third attempt in six years to drown voter registration groups in regulation,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It is unfortunate that we have had to represent Florida’s leading voter registration groups, not once, or twice, but three times in fighting back against the Florida legislature’s repeated attempts to stifle access to voter registration opportunities.”

The attorneys representing the civic groups are with the Brennan Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, and leading pro bono law firms Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and Florida-based Coffey Burlington.

The civic groups asked the court to block Florida’s new restrictions on the basis that they violate both the U.S. Constitution and the National Voter Registration Act in three main ways:

(1)    They violate the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected rights of speech and association;

(2)    They fail to give individuals and groups fair notice of how to comply with its confusing and unclear mandates; and

(3)    They violate the National Voter Registration Act a federal law designed in part to encourage community-based voter registration activity.

In another ongoing suit, the State of Florida is requesting a panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C. “preclear” H.B. 1355’s controversial provisions, including the voter registration restrictions, under the Voting Rights Act. Under the Act, Florida must seek permission from the federal government before implementing changes to election laws in five of Florida’s counties, by proving that the law has neither the purpose nor the effect of harming minority voters. The League of Women Voters of Florida, other civil rights organizations, and individuals including voters and election officials, have all intervened in that suit to demonstrate that Florida will not be able to make this showing given the law’s impacts on minority voters. The League is represented in that case by the Brennan Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and pro bono counsel from the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP.