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Court Case

Florida NAACP v. Browning

A lawsuit filled by the Brennan Center and other voting rights advocates challenging Florida’s requirement that the driver’s license or Social Security number on a registration form be verified before a voter can be registered to vote.

Published: October 23, 2008

On September 17, 2007, the Brennan Center and other voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit challenging Florida's requirement that the driver's license or Social Security number on a registration form be verified before a voter can be registered to vote. After a preliminary injunction against the law was granted in December 2007, and a remand from the appellate court in April, a hearing was held in federal court on June 6, 2008. On June 24, 2008, a federal judge upheld the Florida law, albeit with legal modifications and administrative improvements that had not been in place when the lawsuit was first filed. The state began enforcing the law for the 2008 general election on September 8, 2008. The parties dismissed the case on March 1, 2010.

The error-laden practice that was originally challenged converts an administrative recordkeeping measure to a burden on voters, upending federal laws designed to ensure that bureaucratic mistakes no longer disenfranchised eligible citizens. Records indicate that the practice unduly delayed or denied the registration of more than 76,000 Florida citizens, including more than 11,000 citizens kept from the rolls in 2008, with a substantial differential impact on minority citizens, as seen here, here, and here.

The original Florida law was similar to a practice the Brennan Center successfully challenged in federal court in Washington State in 2006, in the first lawsuit in the country on this issue. Like the practice invalidated in Washington, Florida prohibits elections officials from placing eligible citizens on the rolls unless they clear a series of extra bureaucratic hurdles largely dependent on "matching" registration information on a new statewide voter list with information in the state motor vehicle or Social Security systems. There are several flaws in the typical system. A citizen registering as "Bill" might not "match" if his Social Security number is issued under "William." A woman's married name might not match against a database where she is listed under her maiden name. Haitian-American and other Latino citizens who use compound names like "Jean-Robert Martin" or "Gabriel García Márquez" may find themselves with part of their first or last name listed as a middle name and unable to be matched.

These sorts of common errors or inconsistencies make unsophisticated "matching" unreliable, jeopardizing the status of new voters, and subjecting these voters to undue and burdensome bureaucratic requirements to climb out of a registration limbo. When the state’s matching process fails, some counties have sensibly allowed voters to fix the problem with documentation at the polls, as federal law suggests. But elsewhere, voters have shown passports and military ID, and have shown up with driver's licenses on election day, and have still been unable to fix the State's mistake, leaving them unregistered and unable to vote a valid ballot.

Plaintiffs, including the Florida branch of the NAACP, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on September 17, 2007. An amended complaint was filed on September 21, 2007. They were 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.

On December 18, 2007, a federal judge enjoined the Florida law, finding that the law resulted in "actual harm to real individuals," and was preempted by federal statute. More than 14,000 otherwise eligible citizens were placed back on the rolls in time for Florida's presidential primary. The judge's order was appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and on April 3, 2008, the appellate court reversed, holding that the Florida law was not preempted. The case returned to the trial court for resolution of the remaining claims, including the claim that the challenged law unconstitutionally deprives Florida citizens of their right to vote.

A hearing on these claims was held on June 6, 2008. Just before the hearing, on June 5, 2008, Florida's governor signed into law an amended version of the challenged statute in which the Florida legislature addressed some of the law's flaws, and the state promised further administrative improvements in the operation of the law over the months ahead. Given these changes, on June 24, 2008, the district court declined to block the law on constitutional grounds. In large part, the court's decision was based on its conclusion that plaintiffs had not had presented evidence that the new law imposed the same harms as the original statute.

Florida began enforcing the law once again on September 8, 2008, with an enhanced process at the state level to attempt to remedy errors. In the 2008 general election, several of the most populous counties also allowed voters caught up by the matching process to remedy the problem with documentation at the polls, reducing the total impact of the failed matches. The parties dismissed the case on March 1, 2010.

District Court Papers

Appeals Court Papers

Letters

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Appendix [Amended Summary Statistics on Unmatched Applicants]