A Florida judge on May 31 temporarily blocked parts of a restrictive voter registration law in a decision that is being hailed as a victory for voters and voting rights advocates nationwide.

“Allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinckle wrote in his decision.

In May 2011 the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law that would, among other things, require organizations to deliver completed applications to the elections office within 48 hours. The requirements had a chilling effect, with prominent civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters, suspending registration drives, thus resulting in fewer registered voters.

In response, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, and Rock the Vote sued the state, saying the rules violate the Constitution and the National Voting Rights Act.

Hinkle, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, agreed and said in his ruling that in some cases the law’s provisions were not well thought out.

“The statute and rule impose a harsh and impractical 48-hour deadline for an organization to deliver applications to a voter registration office and effectively prohibit an organization from submitting applications by mail. And the statute and rule impose burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional even to the extent they do not violate the NVRA,” he wrote.

In one example of the law’s onerous nature, detractors said, Sabu L. Williams, president of the Okaloosa County Branch of the NAACP, received a letter from the Florida Secretary of State warning that signatures collected on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King holiday were “untimely under the law” because they had been turned in 49 hours after they were gathered — even though elections offices had been closed that Monday in observance of the holiday. The letter further warned the NAACP that “any future violation of the third-party voter registration law may result in my referral of the matter to the attorney general for an enforcement action.”

Other problematic requirements that were temporarily frozen included: that individuals who do not physically collect voter registration forms pre-register with the state before engaging in any voter registration activity; that organizations give the state notice within 10 days when any volunteer or employee stops volunteering for the organization; that individuals who engage in voter registration sign a form warning them that turning in forms with erroneous information is a criminal violation and that organizations send a monthly report to the state listing the number of voter registration applications the organization distributed and received.

Advocacy groups say Florida’s law reflects a growing number of GOP-led initiatives to suppress the electorate—particularly minority, mostly-Democratic voters—and Judge Hinckle’s ruling was an important step in empowering the state’s voters.

“This decision is a critical victory in the fight to protect the voting rights of thousands of Floridians who will depend on third-party, non-partisan groups like the NAACP to register for upcoming elections,” stated Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze. “The NAACP is now better positioned to help our community ensure their voices are heard at the ballot box. “

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO