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Sunshine State Again a Flashpoint for Voting Rights

Florida last week marked two victories that will help protect the integrity of the state’s elections, becoming the latest state where conservative efforts to suppress voter participation have stalled. As Progressive States Network has noted previously, conservatives emboldened by recent successful efforts to make it harder for people to vote should not count their chickens before they hatch in 2012.

In May 2011, Florida’s state legislature passed an omnibus voter suppression bill that rolled back time-tested practices like early voting and the ability to make name and address changes at the polls. However, one of the most controversial aspects of the law was its requirement that voter registration groups submit all forms to state agencies within 48 hours of completion by a new voter. The provision – as well as the stiff fines levied for noncompliance – was so burdensome that the League of Women Voters of Florida was forced to suspend all voter registration activities shortly after the bill’s enactment.

But last week, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle blocked Florida from enforcing this clause of the new law, calling it “harsh and impractical” – a ruling that will help African American and Latino voters, in particular, sustain their political participation, since studies show these communities are twice as likely to take advantage of voter registration drives compared to white voters.

Among the other provisions that were struck down was a requirement that all volunteers sign a statement agreeing to follow the law when registering voters – a statement that also details the criminal penalties involved if anyone errs. In his opinion, Judge Hinkle pointed out that such statements “could have no purpose other than to discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected, activities.” Not all of the law’s burdensome voter registration requirements were struck down, but with the most draconian provisions gone, groups like the League of Women Voters can hopefully resume their important work.

Finally, an effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from Florida’s voter rolls – which Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been planning for months – has also been put on hold after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the state, warning that the purges appeared to violate both the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. The state had flagged 2,700 potential noncitizens, about 58% of whom are Latino. However, the list, which used citizenship information from the Department of Motor Vehicles, was problematic. Not only was its methodology fundamentally shoddy, in many cases using out-of-date citizenship data that did not account for newly naturalized citizens, but the list also included U.S.-born citizens. To put the situation in context, the 2000 presidential election in Florida was decided by a mere 537 votes, after a similar purge succeeded in removing 7,000 voters from the rolls.

With conservatives targeting their voter suppression efforts at battleground states, the old adage “every vote counts” is truer than ever. For more information on what you can do to fight back against voter suppression in your state, please contact Cristina Francisco-McGuire, Senior Policy and Program Specialist, at cfm@progressivestates.org.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, June 6, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sent a response email to the DOJ, refusing to stop the non-citizen purge of the voter rolls. Detzner claimed that the DOJ was construing the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act incorrectly, and protecting potentially ineligible voters in the process. Further upping the ante, Detzner claimed that it was actually the Department of Homeland Security that was on the wrong side of the law, because they denied the state access to federal citizenship databases.

Stay tuned for further updates.
 

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