The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Project Vote, a national voting rights group, filed suit in federal court Friday to challenge the implementation of Florida’s controversial new election law.
The case is being brought on behalf of nine voters in the Florida counties covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, including two state lawmakers, against Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state’s top elections official. It asks a three-judge panel to block implementation of the law until it has been cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Browning is still preparing to submit the changes to the federal government. For the law to be approved, the state must show that the changes, which include new regulations on groups that register voters and on people who move to another county and try to change their address at the polls, will not discriminate against minorities.
Estelle Rogers, an attorney with Project Vote, said the new requirements could make registration drives targeting minority communities “nearly impossible,” but that argument will wait until the Justice Department is ready to review the changes, which can take 60 days once they’re submitted. The current case simply argues that the law cannot be put into effect before it is approved.
Democratic state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who is a plaintiff in the case, said the law places “un-American” new restrictions on voting, and was enacted in haste and driven by a “rank partisan agenda.”
Chris Cate, a spokesman for Browning, said that because the law took effect once it was signed by Scott, county supervisors of elections have to begin implementing the changes immediately in the 62 Florida counties not covered under Section 5, and that “the lawsuit wrongly suggests that it’s the secretary who is directing counties to implement the law. It is the law itself that is directing counties to implement the law.”
One provision cited in the ACLU’s complaint (.pdf) shortens the shelf-life of signatures gathered during ballot initiatives from four years to two. The Palm Beach Post notes that another provision limits the window for groups to challenge constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature to 30 days after they’ve been received by the secretary of state, and that groups like the ACLU might be interested in challenging some of the seven constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature this session.
Cate also said that a 1998 legal memo issued by the Florida Division of Elections, which stated that new election rules could not take effect before they had been approved under the Voting Rights Act, does not apply to the new law because “the circumstances are different.” For one thing, in that case, Florida was in the middle of preparing for statewide elections.
Still, as lawyers from the Brennan Center for Justice noted in a separate letter to Browning, the speedy implementation of an elections law that has not been approved by the Justice Department represents a departure from “longstanding Florida practice.”
The question is whether the state can implement the law outside of the five counties covered under the Voting Rights Act, which ACLU lawyers said would violate a requirement in Florida law that election rules be uniform throughout the state.
“We are confident that all 67 counties are correctly interpreting the law as it applies to them – with 5 counties awaiting preclearance and 62 counties already implementing the law,” Cate wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, is looking to launch a congressional inquiry into a wave of new elections laws passed in Florida and other states.