Florida Voting Wars: Judge Halts Voter Registration Law, Justice Department Purge Warning

A federal judge last week blocked key provisions of a restrictive law regulating voter registration drives in Florida, the same day the Department of Justice demanded that state officials stop purging the voter rolls.


The Brennan Center represents the Florida League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and Florida PIRG Education Fund in challenging the law, which required groups to submit registration forms within 48 hours and forced volunteers to sign intimidating forms before registering voters. “Allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy,” U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle wrote.
“We have seen a wave of suppressive laws in the last year or two in state legislatures,” the Brennan Center’s Lee Rowland, who argued the case in court, said on MSNBC’s Politics Nation. “If this decision means anything, it means that laws that are passed with the purpose to crack down on voting are illegitimate, they’re unlawful, and they need to be blocked, and this federal court did that.”
Just hours after Hinkle issued his decision, the Justice Department “asked Florida to stop searching for and purging the names of possible ineligible voters,” saying the state may be violating federal law, including the Voting Rights Act and the Motor Voter law. In recent weeks, Florida officials claimed to have found 182,000 voters who may not be citizens and took steps to write to and remove 2,600 of them from the rolls.
Despite the Justice Department’s warning, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner remained defiant, saying that the state “will continue to act in a responsible and cautious manner when presented with credible information about potentially ineligible voters.” Meanwhile, the state association for election officials has told counties to halt the purge. 
“I recommend that Supervisors of Elections cease any further action until the issues raised by the Department of Justice are resolved between the parties or by a Court,” Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, wrote in a memo to the state’s 67 supervisors. “There are just too many variables with this entire process at this time for supervisors to continue,” said Vicki Davis, president of the association.
“People are fighting back and succeeding,” the Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez told MSNBC. Florida’s policy makers should make voter registration more accurate and more accessible by modernizing the system, “not by repeating the kind of discredited and problematic purge programs that have taken place in the past,” Pérez wrote in the Orlando Sentinel. “Many states are adopting systems that use 21st-century technology to increase the number of eligible voters and remove ineligible voters with more accuracy.”
For more on Florida’s voter purge listen to Pérez on NPR’s Latino USA and watch Brennan Center President Michael Waldman on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Daily Rundown.
Also read Diana Kasdan’s Huffington Post op-ed on the voter registration decision, and a column from The New York Times’ Charles Blow on “darkness in the sunshine state.”
State Updates
New Hampshire – The legislature compromised on a voter ID bill. Starting for the September primary, eight different versions of ID, including student IDs, will be accepted for voting. In mid-2013, the number of acceptable ID cards is reduced to four and will not include student IDs.
Pennsylvania – The state announced a new way to help residents get a photo ID for voting: Pennsylvania natives will not need a birth certificate to get an ID. This may lower one hurdle, but “others remain,” wrote one critic. “By again tinkering with Pennsylvania’s two-month-old voter-ID law, Gov. Corbett’s administration only makes it more obvious that the hastily imposed statute is as flawed as it is unwarranted,” wrote The Philadelphia Inquirer. Read more here. Meanwhile, a judge rejected a group’s bid to intervene in a suit challenging the law. A trial is set for July 25th.
Florida – Read more coverage of the injunction preventing curbs on voter registration drives at The Washington Post, CBS News, and Bloomberg. Before the Justice Department stepped in last week, six members of Congress asked Gov. Rick Scott (R) to stop the voter purge. Numerous stories surfaced of eligible voters, including a 91-year-old WWII veteran, being targeted on the purge list. One election official tweeted a photo of one of these “non-citizens” holding his passport. Read more here, here, and here. And read more coverage from Rolling Stone and NPR.
Minnesota – A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the American Civil Liberties Union, are petitioning to remove the state’s voter ID amendment from the ballot in November. The petition “claims the wording of the ballot question is misleading and unclear.” Meanwhile, a group of seniors cut up their AARP cards to protest the organization’s opposition to the amendment.
Texas – The state’s voter ID law, on hold awaiting approval from a D.C. Circuit Court, caused some confusion during the May 29 primary because some voters didn’t know if they needed ID. In the case over the law, state Attorney General Greg Abbott dropped his opposition to state lawmakers giving depositions. And with Florida’s purge in the news, the Houston Chronicle warned voters to watch out for voter registration cancellations, detailing how, from November 2008 to November 2010, 300,000 valid voters were notified they could be removed from the rolls. Read more here and here.
Read more state updates on our blog.
And don’t forget our up-to-date online summary of all pending and passed voting laws.
New Data and Research
Voter Identification: The True Costs
In an analysis of Minnesota’s voter identification amendment, students at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public affairs conclude voter ID “will fundamentally change the state’s election system. Few states, notably Georgia and Indiana, have implemented equally stringent identification requirements. Executing voter photo identification in Minnesota poses an unprecedented challenge in accommodating Election Day registration. In addition, state and local officials will face monumental tasks: influencing enabling legislation, drafting sound election rules and procedures, and effectively managing election costs. Lastly, with an implementation date of November 2013, time and resources will be extremely limited for effectively addressing all challenges.” Read a one-page summary.
Media Round-Up
• The New York Times editorialized against Florida’s voter purge, calling it “discriminatory” and accusing Gov. Rick Scott (R) of manipulating the system for partisan gain.
• Times columnist Charles Blow also wrote about the purge and last week’s victory on voter registration drives. “We can’t predict a winner, but we must insist on a fair fight,” he wrote. “Voter suppression can’t be allowed to overshadow democracy in the Sunshine State.” Blow cited a blog post from the Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez.
• Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. highlighted the story of 91-year-old WWII veteran Bill Internicola, who was targeted as a non-citizen by Florida’s voter purge despite casting ballots in the state for the past 14 years. “This is a thumb on the scales,” he wrote. “It is a blatant use of the machinery of government in the cause of voter intimidation and suppression.”
• Attorney General Eric Holder told church leaders “that a wave of new state laws on voting and legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may jeopardize rights they helped fight for in the civil rights era.” Read more coverage from The Washington Post, NPR, McClatchy, and The Guardian.
• The Los Angeles Times urged the Supreme Court to honor an appeals court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Read more on the Voting Rights Act from Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog and Professor Chris Elmendorf at Jurist.
• Joan Biskupic at Reuters called the Shelby County, Alabama case “an epic challenge to voting rights.”
• Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.) wrote an op-ed in support of the Voter Empowerment Act for The Hill.
• The Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser explained to CNN how African-Americans and Latinos will “find it more difficult to participate this time around” because of restrictive voting laws.
• Wal-Mart is the latest company to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council because of the group’s stance on voter ID laws.
• The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled voting rights activist Faye Anderson, who will soon launch a “web-based Cost of Freedom app, a one-stop site for voter ID information in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”