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League of Women Voters of Florida v. Browning

Case challenging restrictions on third-party voter registration drives.

Published: August 6, 2008

On April 28, 2008, the Brennan Center, along with the Advancement Project and Debevoise and Plimpton filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of its members, the AFL-CIO of Florida, and AFSCME Council 79 challenging a revised Florida voter registration law that imposes prohibitive fines on voter registration groups and risks preventing eligible Florida citizens from registering and voting in the 2008 elections.

The Brennan Center and plaintiffs were concerned that the revised Florida law, which closely resembles an earlier version of the law declared unconstitutional in federal court in 2006 - see League of Women Voters of Florida v. Cobb and related documents below - would produce a serious chilling effect on registration drives and dampen turnout in the November 2008 elections. The groups were particularly concerned that the law would disproportionately burden African-American and Hispanic voter applicants and applicants from Spanish-speaking households, who are twice as likely to register to vote through voter registration drives as white applicants or applicants from English-speaking households. 

After the state's voter registration law was declared unconstitutional in 2006, the Florida state legislature passed a revised version that plaintiffs argue continues to deter voter registration groups and individuals from assisting Floridians in registering to vote. While Secretary of State Browning initially agreed to refrain from enforcing the new law, later announced that he would implement it as of April 30, 2008.

The law imposes a tiered regime of deadlines and fines: $50 fines for each form turned in more than 10 days after collection; $250 for each form turned in past a registration deadline; and $500 for each lost form. The fines apply to each and every form that is lost or late. The fines are $250, $500 and $1000, respectively, for any group or individual found to have done any of the above willfully. Plaintiffs argued that even with reduced - but significant - fines, the law is so vague that its cumulative effect could be just as risky to non-profit voter registration groups largely operated by volunteers as the earlier version of the law.  In particular, they were concerned that the law would permit $1,000 fines to be imposed on every member or volunteer of an organization involved in registration drives, and each of an organization's chapters or branches.  Plaintiffs contended that the possibility of such onerous cumulative fines posed grave constitutional concerns. 

On April 30, 2008, the parties entered into a binding agreement filed in federal court. The agreement came the day after plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order that would have barred state authorities from enforcing the restrictions. Under the agreement, Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning stated that he will not enforce the restrictions until the administrative rulemaking process is completed, which he estimated would occur no earlier than early July 2008. As a result, groups and individuals who conduct voter registration drives in Florida were able to proceed with their voter registration activities without fear of being fined under the law.

On August 6, 2008, the federal district court issued an order denying plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. The court did so, however, based on an interpretation of the law that imposed tighter limits on the amount that organizations and individuals involved in voter registration activities could be fined. As a result, plaintiffs concluded that they could continue voter registration drives without fear of being subject to excessive fines. At the time of the court's decision, Secretary of State Browning had not yet proposed final rules, and  the law was not be enforced until the administrative rulemaking is completed.

The November 2008 election came and went without the rulemaking having been completed.  As a result, plaintiffs were able to conduct registration drives before the 2008 election. 

In early 2009, the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections proposed a final rule implementing the challenged statute.  The rule, which took effect on February 26, 2009, incorporated the narrowed interpretation of the statute adopted by the district court, thus codifying the court's construction of the law into a binding administrative rule and protecting plaintiffs and similar organizations from excessive fines.  After the adoption of the administrative rule, the parties agreed to settle the lawsuit; on June 17, 2009, the case was dismissed pursuant to the parties' stipulation. 

 

District Court Papers


 

League of Women Voters of Florida v. Cobb

On May 18, 2006, the Center, in conjunction with the Advancement Project and pro bono counsel Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP and Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging as unconstitutional a new Florida law that restricts the activities of voter registration groups. The challenged law requires third-party voter registration groups to meet new artificially short deadlines for the return of forms, and imposes hefty fines under a strict liability scheme; the suit argues the resulting burden on plaintiffs' speech is unconstitutional. The new law also specifically exempts political parties from its reach, discrimination that plaintiffs argue is clearly unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the League of Women Voters of Florida; People Acting for Community Together (PACT), a coalition of community organizations, churches, synagogues and schools based in Miami-Dade County; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 79 (AFSCME); Service Employees International Union, Florida Healthcare Union (SEIU-FHU); Marilyn Wills, president of the Tallahassee League of Women Voters; and unnamed individuals who are eligible to and want to vote this year but will be denied by the challenged law.

On August 28, 2006, a federal court in Miami blocked enforcement of the Florida state law. After the ruling, the state appealed the case and the Florida state legislature went back and reenacted the law with slight changes. The Brennan Center submitted comments under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to the Department of Justice opposing preclearance of the amended law. On January 23, 2008, the Department of Justice precleared Florida's amended law.

Parties entered a standstill agreement on November 29, 2007, where the State agreed not to enforce the amended law, and Plaintiffs agreed not to proceed with litigation. On February 21, 2008, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal as moot.

Plaintiffs subsequently moved for an award of attorneys fees and costs, and after the district court awarded plaintiffs attorneys fees, the parties ultimately reached a settlement agreement on their dispute over fees.  The fees litigation was ultimately dismissed, pursuant to the parties' settlement agreement, on July 7, 2009.

 

District Court Papers

Selected Plaintiffs' Exhibits

Appeals Court Papers

Documents Related to Preclearance of Amended Law