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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]