Suppressive Voting Laws Take Hit, Federal Judge Blocks Florida Law

May 31, 2012

Contact: Erik Opsal, 646-292-8356, erik.opsal@nyu.edu

New York, NY – A federal judge blocked enforcement of key provisions of a restrictive voting law in Florida today, a breakthrough victory for Florida voters and voting rights advocates nationwide.

The law included onerous restrictions on community-based voter registration drives, forcing the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups to shut down their drives. In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle found that the Constitution and federal law prohibit most of Florida’s recently-passed restrictions, and highlighted the law’s impact on the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

“Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one’s rights in a federal court. … [W]hen a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever,” U.S. Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote in his opinion blocking most of the Florida law. “And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy.”

“Today’s decision makes clear that laws that make it harder to participate in the political process should be rejected,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, and co-author of the report, Voting Law Changes in 2012. “Florida’s law and others approved in the past year represent the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades. Today’s decision will help turn the tide. Rather than erecting senseless barriers to voting, we should make our voting system work by upgrading our ramshackle voter registration system.”

In 2011, a wave of suppressive laws passed that could make it significantly harder for millions of eligible Americans to cast ballots this fall, according to the Brennan Center’s comprehensive study, Voting Law Changes in 2012.

The Florida decision marks the first time a federal court has blocked one of these restrictive voting laws, and comes after the Department of Justice, in a separate lawsuit, opposed Florida’s law restricting voter registration and early voting. The Justice Department also rejected restrictive voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas.  A judge ruled that Wisconsin’s voter ID law violated the state Constitution.

Widespread voting cutbacks could have a significant electoral impact in this year’s hard-fought races. Minorities, poor, elderly, and young voters will likely be most affected.

Voting Law Changes in 2012 analyzes the 20 laws and two executive actions that passed in 15 states in 2011, as well as more than 100 bills that were introduced but did not pass (some may still pass). The study shows, among other things, that:

  • The states that had cut back on voting rights will provide a majority of the electoral votes needed to win in 2012 and comprise a significant number of battleground states. 
  • Since the report’s release in October 2011, three additional states have passed bills making it harder to vote (Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Virginia), bills are currently pending in 12 states, and citizens in two states have succeeded in blocking restrictive laws.

“These voting law changes are radical and completely unnecessary. They especially hurt those who have been historically locked out of our electoral system — minorities, poor people, and students. Often they seem precisely targeted to exclude certain voters,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Center’s Democracy Program and one of the attorneys who argued the Florida case. “After the Florida election fiasco in 2000, it became clear that the rules of election administration could affect outcomes. This time, those rules are being altered in a way that will likely hurt millions.”

Proponents of these laws assert they are needed to combat voter fraud. An earlier Brennan Center study, The Truth About Voter Fraud, showed that such in-person voter impersonation is exceedingly rare. “You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud,” Weiser noted.

Read more about state law changes here.

Read more about how 11 percent, or more than 21 million, American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID in Citizens Without Proof, a Brennan Center publication.

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