Federal judge reviewing state elections law today

Pic by samantha celera, via Flickr

Today, a federal judge in Tallahassee will review a lawsuit filed by state civil action groups against the controversial elections overhaul bill signed into law in Florida last year.

The groups challenging the law, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote, and Florida PIRG, filed a lawsuit this past December charging that the law “unconstitutionally and unlawfully burdens their efforts, and the efforts of other individuals and community-based groups, to encourage civic engagement and democratic participation by assisting Florida citizens in registering to vote and exercising their fundamental right to vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, The Brennan Center for Justice and the law firms Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and Coffey Burlington sued on behalf of the groups.

The Brennan Center reports on its blog that today, a “the judge will decide whether to freeze the law while the court considers Plaintiffs’ claims that it violates the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes.”

Critics of the law have warned that it would have calamitous effects on third-party voter registration in the state. Among the many onerous restrictions placed on third party groups are rules requiring voter registration forms be turned in within 48 hours. In the past, groups have had 10 days to turn them in.

The bill would also levy steep fines against any group violating the new rules.

In response to the elections law, third-party registration groups decided to postpone holding voter registration drives last year. The groups have said the law places prohibitive restrictions on their particular groups. The League of Women Voters, one of the oldest third-party groups in the country, completely stopped its voter registration efforts in the state because of the new rules.

The law is already having negative effects. During a congressional hearing this past January in Tampa, Daniel Smith, an elections expert and professor at the University of Florida, warned during a U.S. Senate hearing that the state is witnessing a decrease in voter registration numbers. Smith blamed the new laws for the decrease.

According to Smith’s testimony at the hearing:

In July, 2007, the Division of Elections received a total of 40,789 voter registration applications and determined that 92.5 percent were valid. Four years later, in July 2011, the first month HB 1355 was in effect, the Division of Elections processed a total of 37,115 voter registration applications. Of those, 88.9 percent were deemed to be valid.

Deidre MacNab, the president of the Florida League of Women Voters, told me this past December that she was also witnessing a decrease in voter registration numbers, during an especially-crucial time for voter-registration.

“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.”

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