Daniel Smith, an elections expert and professor at the University of Florida, warned during a U.S. Senate hearing last Friday that the state is witnessing a decrease in voter registration numbers due to a new law passed by the state’s GOP-led Legislature.
Warnings of the calamitous effects of the state’s new law have been circulating since it was passed last session. Smith was among several experts who were asked to testify last week before U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., about the effects of the new law.
Smith’s testimony centered on the effect the law will have on early voting and voter registration, among other things. He warned that compared to the same time during the last presidential election, voter registration numbers have slowed considerably.
When the law was enacted last year, third-party registration groups decided to stop holding voter registration drives because of the onerous restrictions the new law placed 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 new law requires groups to turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours. In the past, groups had 10 days to turn them in. There are also steep fines levied on any group that violates the new rules. A coalition of groups in Florida filed a lawsuit this December against the state’s new voter registration regulations.
Last week, Smith announced that the new rules keeping third-party groups from holding drives have already affected how many people are being registered to vote.
According to Smith’s written testimony (.pdf):
An examination of monthly records prepared by the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections, records that are required by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, reveals that HB 1355 likely has had a dampening effect on the registration of new voters in Florida. In addition, there is no evidence that HB 1355 has reduced the number of invalid voter registration forms that are submitted to the 67 county Supervisors of Elections, various authorized state agencies (e.g., any Florida driver’s license or tax collector’s office), and “third-party” individuals and organizations who have registered under the law.
For example, as Graph 2 displays, 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.
Even more dramatically, in December 2007, the Division of Elections processed 77,299 voter registration applications, with a 90.8 percent validity rate. Four years later, in December, 2011, it processed 45,026 voter registration applications, but determined that only 89.6 percent were valid.
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.
Deidre MacNab, the president of the Florida League of Women Voters, told me this past December that she was already seeing a decrease in voter registration numbers. She said that we were already in 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.”
Two teachers in Florida have already gotten into possible legal trouble because they unknowingly violated the state’s strict new voter registration rules.
Florida is currently waiting for a ruling on controversial aspects of the law from a court in the District of Columbia.