Civil Rights Organizations Request Halt on Implementing New Election Law

June 3, 2011

Letter to FL Dept. of State: If Implemented Before Federal Review, New Policies Would Unlawfully Create Different Rules for Different Counties

Tallahassee, FL – On behalf of a coalition of civil rights organizations and civic groups that assist with new voter registration, the Brennan Center for Justice sent a letter to Florida’s Secretary of State, requesting that Florida hold off on the premature implementation of the state’s newly-passed election law changes. The new law, H.B. 1355, contains a number of measures tightening voting and voter registration opportunities, including shortening Florida’s early voting period, making it harder for Floridians who have recently moved to vote normally, and instituting onerous new regulations on voter registration.

In the letter to Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the Brennan Center argues that immediate implementation of the new law would be unlawful under Florida statute and longstanding policy, as it would set up two sets of election rules for different parts of the state. Five Florida counties are subject to the "pre-clearance" provision of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates changes to election procedures in certain jurisdictions must be reviewed and pre-cleared by the United States Department of Justice or a federal court.

Florida law requires uniform application of election rules and procedures across the state, but if Florida attempts to put the new law’s changes in place before the federal review is complete, much of the state would be forced to operate under a separate and different set of rules from the counties covered by the Voting Rights Act.

A large coalition of civil rights organizations has signed on to the letter in opposition to an unfair, premature implementation of the new law. The full list is included below.

Uneven Implementation

The letter to Secretary Browning cites Florida statutes and past Division of Elections advisory opinions that specifically rule out the maintenance of “dual election systems” for different jurisdictions within the state. Yet the law’s new provisions, if implemented in some counties but not others while pending federal review, would do precisely that:

  • The new voter registration regulations would be in force in some counties but not others, unfairly and unlawfully creating two separate sets of rules governing voter registration in different parts of the state
  • Some counties would unfairly be left with a dramatically shorter early voting period than others, as the new law cuts the opportunity for early voting to fourteen days to eight
  • Floridians who moved recently would have varying difficulty voting depending on their new county of residence, as implementation of the new law would end Florida’s longstanding policy of allowing citizens who have recently moved to easily change their registration address on Election Day and vote normally at their poll site 

The Legislation

H.B. 1355 has been described as an “omnibus bill” of election law changes that combine to make voting more difficult for Sunshine State residents at many different stages of the process. Civic and good-government organizations that have helped register new voters are most affected by the new rules the law will impose on voter registration drives, which will practically “regulate volunteer voter registration drives out of existence.” These include:

  • A hard deadline requiring voter registration forms be returned to the state within 48 hours – a requirement that would force the League of Women Voters and other civic organizations and volunteers to risk extreme penalties over slight delays, if they continue voter registration efforts
  • An onerous requirement that all volunteers in voter registration efforts be pre-registered with the state before they can help their neighbors register to vote
  • Unreasonable penalties, threatening volunteers and nonprofit organizations with extreme consequences for simple delays or mistakes

 “This law makes it difficult, maybe even impossible, for the League of Women Voters to bring new Floridians into the democratic process.  For the first time in over 70 years, this law may mean that the League of Women Voters will stop registering voters in Florida,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

In addition, the legislation:

  • Reduces all Florida citizens’ opportunity to vote. The law cuts Florida’s early voting period by nearly half, from fourteen days to eight, reducing flexibility and eliminating options for working Floridians.
  • Raises extra barriers to voting for Floridians who have recently moved. The legislation ends Florida’s longstanding policy allowing voters who have moved recently to register their change of address at their new poll site on Election Day and still cast a regular ballot.

“Making it more difficult for eligible citizens to register and shortening the early voting period does nothing to curb fraud as the law’s proponents claim,” said Jorge Mursuli, President and CEO of Democracia. “In fact, quite the contrary – providing a shorter window for quality control almost ensures an increase in inconsistencies across the board.  The new Florida election law really seems aimed at discouraging citizen participation, and keeping certain voices out of the process.  Frankly, I can’t think of anything more un-American than keeping people from the voting booth.”

The coalition that has signed on in support of the Brennan Center’s letter includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Democracia Inc., the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Project Vote, and Rock the Vote. A copy of the letter accompanies this release.

For more information, please contact:

Andrew Goldston

The Brennan Center for Justice

646.292.8372

Andrew.Goldston@nyu.edu

Jeanine Plant-Chirlin

646.292.8322

Jeanine.Plant-Chirlin@nyu.edu

Camila Gallardo

Democracia, Inc.

305.573.7329

cgallardo@mydemocracia.org

Stacie Royster

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

202.662.8317

sroyster@lawyerscommittee.org

Deirdre Macnab

The League of Women Voters of Florida

407.415.4559

didimacnab@earthlink.net