Feds examine Florida's new voting laws

11/09/07 Seán Kinane
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New Florida laws making it more difficult for groups to do voter registration drives are set to go into effect on Jan. 1 unless the U.S. Department of Justice finds that those laws discriminate against minorities.

The Department of Justice sent a letter to state election officials asking for detailed information on how Florida’s election laws, which were passed in the spring, might affect minority voters.

Sterling Ivey is a spokesperson for the Florida Department of State.

“The letter that we received from the Department of Justice in late October is a fairly routine letter. This is the second request that we’ve received from them seeking more information about legislation that was passed in Florida. We’re complying with their request; we’re compiling the information that they need and we should have a response to them by the end of next week.”

The Department of Justice is asking Florida officials to to provide evidence that the new laws don’t discriminate, especially when it comes to voter registration drives by independent groups, called "third party voter registration."

“Well, they’ve asked for some specific documentation, primarily along voter registration. Third-party voter registration seemed to be the key. They key components that they’re looking at is the registration of voters just wanting to be sure that the new laws that were passed in Florida will not disenfranchise any voters in Florida, predominantly voters in the five counties that were required to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice.”

Those five counties are Hillsborough, Collier, Monroe, Hardee and Hendry.

Renee Paradis is council for the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking that they not offer pre-clearance to Florida’s new voter laws because it led the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the leading third party voter registration groups, to reconsider its registration drives.

“They’ve stopped doing voter registration because of threats of high fines and tight turnaround deadlines for forms. Once we won a preliminary injunction in the trial court, while the case was on appeal, the state changed the law to make it somewhat less onerous, but not get rid of it entirely. And that change in the law had to be what’s called ‘pre-cleared’ through the Department of Justice. Certain states and counties in the United States, because of past discrimination, have to have all changes in voting procedures pre-cleared through the Department of Justice and five of Florida’s counties are covered under the law.”

The Brennan Center letter, signed by Paradis, said that the new laws would hurt the ability of minorities to register to vote.

“And this is because third-party voter registration groups – black and Hispanic voters, as well as voters from Spanish-speaking households are more than twice as likely as white voters and voters from English-speaking households to be registered through these groups.”

In addition to third-party registration changes, one of the new voting laws would disqualify voters whose registration applications are not an exact match with driver’s license and Social Security databases. Another part of the new law involves reducing the types of identification that can prove that the person who is voting is actually the registered voter. This was ostensibly done to cut down on voter fraud, which Paradis says rarely, if ever, happens.

“Impersonation fraud that happens at the polling place is extremely rare. There is only a handful of verified cases over a hundred years of political history. The only type of fraud that ID requirements guard against is that kind of fraud, which simply doesn’t happen. So to put these ID requirements in place, which can stop people from voting, when there’s no justification for it, is also a problem.”

The state has 60 days to prove to the Department of Justice that the changes in the voting laws do not hurt groups that are protected under the Voting Rights Act.

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