A federal judge issued an injunction Thursday blocking the enforcement of a Florida law that imposes draconian restrictions on voter registration.
The Republican-controlled Florida legislature had passed legislation in 2011 making it difficult for groups to register new voters. The law, passed on the pretext of preventing voter fraud, required groups registering voters to turn in voter registration cards within 48 hours of completion, or face fines. The law made it almost impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to verify and turn in ballots in such a short period of time, and even led to threatened fines against a Florida teacher who registered her students to vote.
Ruling in the case of League of Women Voters of Florida vs. Browning, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle blocked enforcement of the law, citing the potential for irrevocable harm to the rights of voter registrants:
Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, an election-code provision of this kind must serve a legitimate purpose that is sufficient to warrant the burden it imposes on the right to vote. And under the National Voting Rights Act, an organization has a federal right to conduct a voter-registration drive, collect voter-registration applications, and mail in the applications to a state voter-registration office.
The assertion that the challenged provisions implicate no constitutional rights is plainly wrong. The plaintiffs wish to speak, encouraging others to register to vote, and some of the challenged provisions—for example, the requirement to disclose in advance the identity of an employee or volunteer who will do nothing more than speak—regulate pure speech. This is core First Amendment activity. Further, the plaintiffs wish to speak and act collectively with others, implicating the First Amendment right of association. More importantly, the plaintiffs wish to assist others with the process of registering and thus, in due course, voting. Voting is a right protected by several constitutional provisions; state election codes thus are subject to constitutional scrutiny. Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one’s rights in a federal court.
In his ruling, Hinkle state that the restrictions the state had proposed were “virtually unintelligible,” and said that the plaintiffs in the case would suffer harm if the law was not blocked, “first because the denial of a right of this magnitude under circumstances like these almost always inflicts irreparable harm, and second because when a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever.”
Dierdre McNab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, a plaintiff in the case, issued a statement praising the ruling.
“For over 72 years, League volunteers have faithfully and successfully helped to register eligible Florida voters. We are hopeful that this ruling will enable us to continue this important work,” she said. “Florida’s anti-voter law creates impassable roadblocks for our volunteers, who are simply trying to bring fellow citizens into our democratic process.”
Republican Fla. Gov. Rick Scott tried to put the best spin on the ruling.
“I am pleased that central parts of the voter registration law have been upheld by a federal judge,” he said in a statement. “Our democracy relies on ensuring only valid, legal votes are counted, and that starts with having a voter registration process that safeguards the ballots of Florida citizens.”
Photo Credit: Brian Turner