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FL’s Obstacle Course to Voter Registration

Yesterday the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida AFL-CIO, and other non-partisan voter registration groups announced their intent to continue signing up eligible Florida voters for the fall election despite the state’s law restricting voter registration drives…this is big news.

August 25, 2008

*Cross-posted from The Hill 

Yester­day the League of Women Voters of Flor­ida, the Flor­ida AFL-CIO, and other non-partisan voter regis­tra­tion groups announced their intent to continue sign­ing up eligible Flor­ida voters for the fall elec­tion despite the state’s law restrict­ing voter regis­tra­tion drives. For groups that registered over half a million citizens in Flor­ida in the last pres­id­en­tial race, this is big news.

Just earlier this year, the League and others had declared a morator­ium on regis­ter­ing voters as soon as Flor­id­a’s new voter regis­tra­tion law went into effect because the law’s strict dead­lines, backed by excess­ive fines, made the risk of conduct­ing drives too prohib­it­ive. States like New Mexico and Texas simil­arly impose oner­ous restric­tions on voter regis­tra­tion drives, and there too, the laws have shut down or dramat­ic­ally curtailed voter regis­tra­tion activ­ity.

Restric­tions on voter regis­tra­tion drives star­ted to pop up around the coun­try after the 2004 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, around the time that U.S. Attor­neys were being pres­sured to bring prosec­u­tions for voter regis­tra­tion fraud even where there was insuf­fi­cient evid­ence to support those prosec­u­tions. Since then, courts have blocked restrict­ive laws in a number of states—in­clud­ing Ohio, Geor­gia, and Flor­id­a—be­cause those laws unduly limited core polit­ical activ­ity protec­ted by the First Amend­ment, stop­ping voter regis­tra­tion drives that could have helped hundreds of thou­sands of citizens to register to vote.

Thank­fully, last week a federal judge issued a decision that narrowed the penal­ties community-based voter regis­tra­tion drives could face in Flor­ida, clari­fy­ing that the total annual fines for each group, its affil­i­ates, its volun­teers, and employ­ees cannot exceed $1000. While $1000 in fines is still an unfair tax on demo­cracy, assum­ing the Flor­ida Secret­ary of State adheres to the judge’s inter­pret­a­tion of the law, the League of Women Voters and others will be able to stay in busi­ness, sign­ing up new, eligible voters. This is espe­cially signi­fic­ant for Flor­id­a’s low-income and minor­ity communit­ies: of all the registered voters in Flor­ida in 2004, 17% of African-Amer­ican voters, 19% of Hispanic voters, 22% of voters from Span­ish-speak­ing house­holds, and 14% of voters who make less than $10,000 a year registered through a drive.

As a coun­try we are hardly out of the weeds, however, when it comes to making sure eligible voters will make it onto the voter rolls in 2008. In a number of states, voter regis­tra­tion is not being made avail­able at social service agen­cies, even though that is required by federal law; the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Affairs has refused to allow state elec­tion offi­cials or civic groups provide voter regis­tra­tion services to the resid­ents of their facil­it­ies; some states are refus­ing to allow voters on the rolls based on computer matches that miss 20 percent of eligible people (and 46% of people who use the last four digits of their Social Secur­ity numbers to register); and there have been sweep­ing, and occa­sion­ally unre­li­able, purges of the voter rolls without public notice, and without notice to the affected voters.

In an elec­tion year with unpre­ced­en­ted voter enthu­si­asm across the coun­try, we should be encour­aging, not restrict­ing, conscien­tious efforts to sign up new voters. Govern­ment offi­cials around the coun­try can still do that between now and Novem­ber – by making sure voters know how and where to register, by encour­aging civic efforts to facil­it­ate voter regis­tra­tion, and by being ready for the huge increase in voter regis­tra­tion rates and for the huge number of voters who will go to the polls this year.