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Florida Law Tightens Voting Rules, Angers Advocates

<p>An immigrant signs a voter registration information card at a booth set up at a rally in downtown Miami in 2007. If a new law is upheld, the time period groups have to turn in new voter registrations will be reduced from 10 days to two.</p>
Roberto Schmidt
AFP/Getty Images

An immigrant signs a voter registration information card at a booth set up at a rally in downtown Miami in 2007. If a new law is upheld, the time period groups have to turn in new voter registrations will be reduced from 10 days to two.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan group with a distinguished history. It was founded in 1920, just months before the U.S. Constitution was amended giving women the right to vote.

The Florida chapter of the League was founded two decades later and since the beginning, has worked to educate and register new voters.

But now, the group says, a new law makes it impossible for it to carry out one of its core missions: registering new voters.

The law passed by Florida's Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott over the objections of the League and other groups, tightens voting regulations in several areas. Among the changes: It reduces the time period groups have to turn in new voter registrations from 10 days to just two. For forms turned in late, there are steep fines and other possible civil penalties.

Some of the law's provisions tighten restrictions and possible penalties for groups that conduct voter registration drives. Republicans in state government — who support the law — say the League is overreacting.

But Deirdre McNabb, president of the League's Florida chapter, says the new law places unreasonable requirements on volunteers just trying to do their civic duty.

"And now, you have to go down to the supervisor's office, fill out a raft of paperwork, take an oath of office," she says. "And you could be liable for civil charges by the attorney general in the event that you get some voter registration form back on an untimely basis."

The League of Women Voters and other groups have gone to court to challenge provisions of Florida's law — which they say violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

Critics say restrictions on voter registration drives unfairly target minorities. They point to statistics that show blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely as whites to register through new voter drives.

They say the law also harms minority participation in another way — by cutting — from 14 to 8 — the days allocated for early voting. Although hours are extended each day, McNabb says, the changes reduce the opportunities to vote before Election Day. In 2008, more than half of black voters in Florida used early voting.

"In essence, our government, certainly here in Florida, is passing laws and spending our taxpayer money to disenfranchise people who should be eligible to vote," McNabb says.

But Republican State Rep. Dennis Baxley says that's "an overreaction."

Baxley was one of the new law's main sponsors in Florida's Legislature. He says the restrictions are intended, not to disenfranchise voters, but to improve accountability of groups conducting registration drives.

Florida has learned a lot since 2000, when a contested vote in the state helped determine the outcome of the presidential election. Baxley says one lesson is that it needs to be able to have confidence in its election results.

"We're going to have close elections in Florida and it's very important that that result has integrity," he says. "We need to make sure that we have our I's dotted and our T's crossed."

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School has joined the lawsuit asking a federal court to reject Florida's law. Wendy Weiser, director of the center's democracy program, dismisses claims that the new restrictions are intended to reduce fraud.

"Florida already had one of the strictest regulations of voter registration drives in the country in place in the last election cycle," Weiser says. "There is not one allegation that has surfaced or been raised of any voter registration fraud that occurred during that election cycle."

Although the League of Women Voters and some other nonpartisan groups may stop registering new voters while the court reviews Florida's new law, it's not going to stop campaigns and political parties. Political operatives say they'll take steps to comply with the restrictions and expect registering new voters will be just as important to them as ever.

If the law is upheld, it looks like in Florida at least, registering new voters will become largely a partisan political activity. Weiser says that's unfortunate, but it's part of a trend that she's seeing nationally.

"From 2000, when everyone's eyes were opened as to how the rules make a difference to election outcomes to the present, it's just been escalating and it's just been more and more politicized in a partisan way in a direction that hurts all Americans," she says.

Florida's far from the only state tightening restrictions on who can vote. In a new study, the Brennan Center finds that more than a dozen states have adopted new voting rules that may present barriers to more than 5 million American voters.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.