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.