Charley Williams, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, speaks at a rally in Orlando. Due to Florida's new election law, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters has stopped all voter registration drives in Florida. (Photo courtesy of Florida League of Women Voters.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Since Florida passed its new election law  last year, almost 81,500 fewer people have registered to vote than in the same period during the 2008 election cycle.

Think that doesn’t matter? In the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida by the official count of 327 votes. In 2008, President Obama won the state by a margin of just 2.5 percent.

The fascinating statistics come from the progressive Institute for Southern Studies, which has issued a report looking at the impact of the law passed by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott. The stated aim is to halt voter fraud, but since that purported problem barely exists, their clear purpose is block voter registration, especially of poor and minority citizens who tend to vote Democratic.

In the wave of Republican takeovers of statehouses in 2010, at least 15 other states have passed laws to restrict voter registration,   potentially affecting 5 million Americans’ participation in this November’s balloting.

Florida’s law is one of the five most restrictive in the United States, according to the liberal Center for American Progress. The others, if you’re keeping score, are Texas, Tennessee, Kansas and Wisconsin.

Florida lawmakers rolled back the period for early voting from two weeks to eight days. They took away the right to vote from ex-felons who complete their sentence. The NAACP has called Florida’s law “the most restrictive felon disfranchisement approach in the country.”

And they imposed heavy requirements on groups that undertake voter-registration efforts — for example, making them turn in completed forms within 48 hours or face a $50 penalty for each application that misses the deadline; the old deadline was 10 days.

The restrictions were so troublesome that the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which has registered citizens for years regardless of political leanings, announced in July that it wouldn’t operate in Florida any longer. It filed a federal lawsuit — along with Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund — challenging the law as a blight on the First Amendment. The U.S. Justice Department filed objections to the law, saying it violates the Voting Rights Act. Decisions are pending.

The Center for American Progress has found that the rash of voter-restriction measures across the states is no coincidence. Many of these laws were drafted and spread through corporate-backed entities such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. If that name sounds familiar, it’s the same group that wrote such gun laws as Stand Your Ground to be promoted by like-minded state lawmakers around the country:

ALEC charges corporations such as Koch Industries Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and The Coca-Cola Co. a fee and gives them access to members of state legislatures. Under ALEC’s auspices, legislators, corporate representatives, and ALEC officials work together to draft model legislation. As ALEC spokesperson Michael Bowman told NPR, this system is especially effective because “you have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters.”

[The CAP obtained] a leaked copy of ALEC’s model Voter ID legislation, which was approved by the ALEC board of directors in late 2009. This model legislation prohibited certain forms of identification, such as student IDs, and has been cited as the legislative model from groups ranging from Tea Party organizations to legislators proposing the actual legislation …

Surely, some of the downturn in new-voter registration is due to a lack of enthusiasm about politics — there have been no competitive Democratic primaries and the Republican candidates have not triggered great excitement — and demographic changes.

But since the Florida law was passed, new voter registrations have dropped by more than 20 percent in Orange County and 39 percent in Miami-Dade. On the Sunday of the three-day Martin Luther Jr. holiday, the Okaloosa County branch of the NAACP registered exactly two people.

The New York Times highlighted Florida’s tough voting restrictions in a front page story last week:

In Volusia County, where new registrations dropped by nearly a fifth compared with the same period four years ago, the supervisor of elections, Ann McFall, said that she attributed much of the change to the new law.

“The drop-off is our League of Women Voters, our five universities in Volusia County, none of which are making a concentrated effort this year,” Ms. McFall said