Judge weighs changes to voter registration in Florida

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Vote By Mail sign, Florida
Vote By Mail and voter registration sign in Pinellas County. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Oct. 2018).

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Voter-registration groups such as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters urged a federal judge on Wednesday to block parts of a new Florida elections law, arguing it violates the First Amendment and is discriminatory.

The measure (SB 7050), signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, imposed new restrictions on “third-party” voter registration groups. The law dramatically increases fines for legal violations and prevents non-U.S. citizens from “collecting or handling” voter-registration applications.

DeSantis and other Republican state leaders contend the law is aimed at ensuring Florida elections are secure.

Three federal lawsuits filed by groups including the NAACP’s Florida chapter, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Hispanic Federation alleged the measure will harm efforts to sign up Black and Hispanic voters and unconstitutionally restrict speech rights.

During a hearing Wednesday, lawyers for the plaintiffs asked Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to issue a preliminary injunction to block the law, which is scheduled to take effect Saturday.

The law will have a “chilling” effect on the organizations, Adriel Cepeda Derieux, an attorney who represents the groups Hispanic Federation and Poder Latinx and individual plaintiffs, argued.

Seventy percent of Hispanic Federation’s canvassers are non-citizens, as are 90 percent of Poder Latinx’s staff and 70 percent of its volunteers, said Cepeda Derieux, who is deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.

“As of July 1, there’s no way these organizations can continue their work in any way remotely … like what they do now. So these groups are really between a rock and a very hard place,” Cepeda Derieux said. “In the worst-case scenario, and if they really want to play it safe — and they will, because no one wants to get fined $50,000 for every violation — they have to fire virtually their entire workforce in the next three days.”

The law will impose a $50,000 fine for each violation and make it a felony for workers to keep the personal information of voters — sanctions the plaintiffs argued are forcing them to consider halting voter registration efforts. The law also will require third-party groups to issue a “receipt” to people who’ve registered to vote. And it will prohibit people convicted of certain felonies from assisting voters through the registration groups.

In addition, the law shortened from 14 days to 10 days the length of time for the groups to submit completed voter-registration applications to elections supervisors.

The law “facially discriminates against” non-citizens, attorney Abha Khanna, who represents the NAACP, Alianza for Progress, Disability Rights Florida and other plaintiffs, told Walker.

In a response filed last week, attorneys for the state said the law includes a 90-day period for groups to come into compliance.

“Accordingly, at the earliest, plaintiffs need not comply with the 2023 law’s changes … until September 30, 2023,” the state’s lawyers wrote.

Secretary of State Cord Byrd also has begun a rule-making process to carry out the law, the state’s lawyers said. The rules will “elucidate the meaning of the phrase ‘collecting or handling’ … and clarify the meaning of the phrase ‘voter’s personal information’ as used in the voter information retention restriction,” the state’s brief said.

But Khanna argued Wednesday that the law is “unconstitutionally vague” and plaintiffs can’t wait for the rules to be finalized in the fall.

“Until then, we are left to wonder what it prohibits and whether the activities plaintiffs routinely and currently engage in will subject them to felony convictions,” she told Walker. “Ultimately, your honor, a vague statute cannot be cured by a specific rule. … At the end of the day, plaintiffs simply cannot afford to risk the very fate of their organizations, of their missions, of their livelihoods in the hopes that maybe the same state actors who defend the Legislature’s wrongs will also make them right.”

Walker questioned the state’s lawyers about the impetus for the restriction on non-citizens registering voters.

Mohammad Jazil, an attorney with the Holtzman Vogel firm who represents the DeSantis administration, pointed to a lengthy report provided to lawmakers showing that 3,077 voter registration forms were turned in late.

But Walker pressed the issue.

“What’s the justification? What are you relying on … that there’s a problem with resident non-citizens?” the judge asked.

“Timeliness is the bucket under which it falls,” Jazil responded.

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 voter registration applications on time.

Walker also asked how the proposed rules could resolve issues raised in the lawsuit.

“What’s the legal basis for this court to say, ‘I’m not going to review it. I’m going to let the secretary (of state) essentially redraft the statute.’ That’s what I’m hung up on,” the judge said.

“The secretary’s position is, he’s not redrafting the statute. He’s interpreting the statute in the best possible way,” Jazil said, eliciting a snipe from Walker.

“I thought the way this works is I have to find … ordinary meaning” in the law, “and if I can’t, Houston, we have a problem, not the Legislature passes a law and we have the deep state of Florida fixing whatever it decides the Legislature should have done that it didn’t do,” Walker said.

The judge indicated he would not issue a ruling before Saturday.

It’s unclear whether the groups will continue their voter-registration efforts until Walker makes a decision.

“A lot of folks are in limbo. We struggle to advise them one way or another, because we know the impact this law is going to have on July 1. So, I can tell you right now that it’s a wait-and-see approach until we get verification of what kind of impact this will have on our clients,” Cesar Ruiz, an attorney for Latino Justice who represents plaintiffs, told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing.

The ban on non-citizens “really doesn’t encourage any efficiency or really relate to timeliness,” Ruiz said, adding that many immigrants who aren’t eligible to vote want to work or volunteer to help other people register.

“So, their way of engaging is really doing outreach in the community and ensuring that individuals who do have that right are encouraged and enabled,” he said.

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