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Lawsuit Prompted Changes to Restrictive Voter Registration Rule, but Revised Law Could Still Disenfranchise Thousands of Eligible Florida Voters in 2008
Ruling Poses Latest Obstacle to Eligible Florida Voters Seeking to Register and Vote in ‘08
Florida – On Tuesday, a federal trial court in Gainesville, Florida, refused to stop the state’s “no-match, no-vote” law, a voter registration law that has blocked more than 16,000 eligible Florida citizens from registering, through no fault of their own, and could disenfranchise tens of thousands more voters in the 2008 elections. While the lawsuit compelled Florida officials to change the law on the margins, yesterday’s ruling upheld severe restrictions in the updated law and poses the latest hurdle in a virtual obstacle course of Florida statutes that is preventing eligible Florida voters from registering to vote.
“This ruling puts thousands of real Florida citizens at risk this November based on bureaucratic typos,” stated Justin Levitt, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, who argued the case on behalf of voter advocates. “Voters who do everything right, who submit forms that are complete, timely, and accurate, will suddenly find themselves unregistered when they go to vote, because someone somewhere slipped on a keyboard. It’s unjust and it’s unnecessary, and Florida voters will pay the price this fall.”
The law at issue bars any Florida citizen from voting a valid ballot if the state cannot validate the citizen’s driver’s license or Social Security number, no matter how much identification the voter is able to bring to the polls. The process starts with an attempt to “match” voter information to other government databases, a practice for which the Social Security Administration reports a 46% failure rate. State officials in the case, Florida NAACP vs. Browning, admitted that typographical errors by election workers are responsible for most of the failures.
“The most senseless part is that the state creates these errors, and then makes it unnecessarily hard to fix the problem,” said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “You can’t show a passport. You can’t show a military ID. And though you can show your driver’s license itself, it doesn’t count if you show it at the polls—the very place where voters have to show a photo ID anyway.”
“At the very least, the counties can and should help avoid the chaos that this law creates by making it possible to fix the problem at the polls,” urged Brian Mellor, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “That would mean fewer provisional ballots, which add up to a real hassle for administrators, on top of the trouble for voters. In 2006 alone, more than 12,800 citizens submitting complete and timely forms were kept off of the rolls, and the volume of registration in 2006 is nothing like what we anticipate in this presidential year.”
“This is not the only pending case against Secretary Browning that challenges unnecessary restrictions on the right to register to vote,” said Myrna Pérez, another Brennan Center attorney working on the case. “Florida has set up a voter obstacle course that does not serve its voters.”
In March, Secretary of State Browning declared that he would enforce a voter registration law that imposes prohibitive fines on voter registration groups, a move that is forcing the Florida League of Women voters to suspend its statewide non-partisan voter registration efforts. In the last presidential cycle, over half a million citizens in Florida registered through a drive.
Also in March, a federal district court in Miami rejected a challenge to another portion of Florida’s voter registration law that prevents would-be voters who submit voter registration applications before the registration deadline—but inadvertently omit information from the form – to correct the application if the omission is discovered after the registration deadline. Election officials who testified at trial reported that thousands of eligible voters were unable to register due to this stipulation prior to the 2006 federal elections in Florida, and that these events are likely to repeat themselves in the upcoming elections in November.
Tuesday’s ruling poses the latest obstacle to eligible Florida voters seeking to register before the 2008 elections.
In December 2007, the Gainesville federal court granted a preliminary injunction against the no-match, no-vote law under two federal statutes, ruling that Florida’s law “makes it harder to vote by imposing a matching requirement that is a barrier to voter registration.”
The highly critical ruling prompted the state legislature to revise portions of the “matching” law—eliminating untenable distinctions between typos made by voters and those made by election officials, and standardizing the notice sent to voters kept off the rolls. Still, voting rights advocates argue that the law’s core burdens remain.
In April, the trial court’s original decision was overturned in a ruling from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, following an appeal by the Florida Secretary of State. Plaintiffs in the case returned to the federal trial court to challenge the amended law under the federal constitution, but on remand, the court refused to enjoin the law.
Florida NAACP vs. Browning was filed in September 2007 by the Florida branch of the NAACP, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The plaintiffs are represented by The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Advancement Project; Project Vote; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; and Greenberg Traurig LLP.