By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
In big news this week was an announcement by the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote that they will resume voter registration in Florida.
Both nonpartisan organizations postponed voter registration efforts in the wake of a bill passed by the Florida Legislature last year cracking down on third-party voter registration groups. The law, HB 1355, requires groups to register with the state, requires individuals to sign a document informing them of harsh penalties and criminal ramifications if they make a mistake on voter registration forms, and requires groups to turn in voter registration forms 48 hours after they are filled out. Before the law, groups had 10 days.
HB 1355 was infamous among voting rights groups for a slew of changes to the state’s elections laws that they said made it harder for students, the elderly, minorities and the disabled to register and vote — but voter registration groups were particularly concerned with new rules that they said would put their volunteers at risk.
Individual groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote were also wary of the financial binds in which the law could put them. Not following these strict new rules could result in fines as high as $1,000.
Months after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, groups including the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group were taking the state to court over the restrictions. They asked a judge to issue an injunction — blocking the voter registration restrictions. A few weeks ago, a federal judge did just that.
Now, the groups are announcing that they are getting back to work registering voters in the state.
Here is a snippet from the groups’ press release:
After reviewing the court’s decision, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Rock the Vote are prepared to move forward and begin taking steps to register voters in anticipation of the upcoming elections season.
“Failure was never an option in this battle against voter suppression,” said LWVF President Deirdre Macnab. “Now it’s time for our volunteers to work overtime to make up for lost ground. Our goal? To make sure every eligible Floridian has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their vote counted.”
The Palm Beach Post reported:
“Rock the Vote registered more than 100,000 new voters before the 2008 election, the group’s president Heather Smith said last week.”
“Florida is an important youth vote state,” Smith said today. “This decision enables us to get back to the work of encouraging a new generation of engaged voters and future leaders.”
It’s expected that voter registration groups will take this opportunity to talk about how positive the ruling has been for their organizations, but it’s worth noting that Election Day is only five months away. Most voter registration groups start serious registration efforts a year out from an election. Deidre MacNab, president of the League of Women Voters, told me in December 2011 that her group was already within crucial months for voter registration in the state.
“I would say that election year is very, very important,” she said, “but we are already within the months now of one year out of the election, the national election; this is critical timing for us.”
It is not impossible for groups to register in less than half the time the same number of voters as they did in 2008 — but it would be quite a feat.
As Lloyd Dunkelberger reports:
There is still time to register voters for the fall. The groups face a July 16 deadline for registering new voters for the Aug. 14 primaries and an Oct. 9 deadline for the Nov. 6 general election, which includes the presidential race.
But there is also evidence to suggest with groups like the League on the sideline for the last year, fewer new voters will be registered this year, compared to the 2008 presidential race.
Daniel Smith, an elections expert at the University of Florida, testified before the U.S. Senate in January warning that there was already significant changes to voter registration numbers.
According to his testimony:
Not only is the number of new voter registrations down appreciably from comparable months four years ago, but the percentage of valid new registrations under HB 1355 is also lower, indicating that third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters and other groups who collected and submitted voter registration forms in 2007, but were not so involved in 2011, are not the cause of invalid voter registration forms being submitted for verification. Rather, what is clear from these figures is that the increased burdens placed on third-party persons and organizations wishing to register citizens to vote resulting from HB 1355 have done little to prevent the submission of invalid voter registration forms.
The New York Times reported back in March of this year:
In the months since its new law took effect in May, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election, according to an analysis of registration data by The New York Times …
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.
Either way you slice it, groups in Florida will be facing a significant deficit.
The injunction was not a final ruling on Florida’s voting law, and five counties that fall under the Voting Rights Act are awaiting federal pre-clearance in order to begin implementing the new law. The court in Washington, D.C., currently reviewing the law is not likely to offer a ruling until August.