By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Saying the case “arises from Florida’s latest assault on the right to vote,” a federal judge Monday blocked parts of a new elections law challenged by voter-registration groups.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in a 58-page decision, issued a preliminary injunction against parts of the law that would prevent non-U.S. citizens from “collecting or handling” voter-registration applications and make it a felony for voter-registration group workers to keep personal information of voters.
Walker sided with groups such as the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Hispanic Federation that argued the changes are unconstitutional.
“Florida may, of course, regulate elections, including the voter registration process,” Walker wrote. “Here, however, the challenged provisions exemplify something Florida has struggled with in recent years; namely, governing within the bounds set by the United States Constitution. When state government power threatens to spread beyond constitutional bounds and reduce individual rights to ashes, the federal judiciary stands as a firewall. The Free State of Florida is simply not free to exceed the bounds of the United States Constitution.”
The law (SB 7050), which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in May, made a series of changes in Florida’s elections system, particularly focused on “third-party” voter registration groups. DeSantis and other state Republican leaders argued, in part, that the law was needed to ensure that elections are secure.
But voter registration groups quickly filed lawsuits challenging the law and seeking a preliminary injunction. They said the groups play an important role in signing up Hispanic and Black voters.
The injunction issued by Walker applies to two parts of the law.
One part would require voter registration groups to submit an “affirmation that each person collecting or handling voter registration applications on behalf of the third-party voter registration organization is a citizen of the United States of America.” Groups could face a $50,000 fine for each non-citizen collecting or handling applications, under the law.
But Walker backed plaintiffs’ arguments that the restriction would violate constitutional equal-protection rights.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the DeSantis administration, pointed to concerns about voter registration applications being turned in late to elections officials. Jazil argued that people who are not U.S. citizens, such as students from other countries or people who have temporary legal immigration status, “are not bound to the community” and thus could be at risk for not turning in applications on time.
But Walker rejected the argument in Monday’s ruling.
“(The) state of Florida has identified a problem with respect to untimely submission of voter registration applications,” Walker wrote. “The hard part for defendants (the state) is identifying any connective tissue between the problem and the state’s proposed solution — namely, banning all noncitizens from collecting or handling voter registration applications on behalf of 3PVROs (third-party voter registration organizations). At the hearing, defendants acknowledged the dearth of evidence connecting noncitizens to late-filed voter registration applications.”
The other part of the law that Walker blocked would make it a third-degree felony if a worker for a voter-registration organization “copies a voter’s application or retains a voter’s personal information, such as the voter’s Florida driver license number, Florida identification card number, Social Security number, or signature, for any reason other than to provide such application or information to the third-party voter registration organization.”
Walker, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, said the part of the law is too vague. For example, he wrote it “leaves open a broad universe of what could be considered ‘personal’ information.”
DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature have passed a series of controversial changes to elections laws in recent years.
Walker in March 2022 issued a 288-page ruling that blocked parts of a 2021 elections law. But a divided three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this year overturned much of his ruling. Groups challenging the law have asked the full Atlanta-based appeals court to take up the case.