Fight For Your Right (to Vote)

A judge’s temporary injunction blocking key provisions of Florida’s new election law has voter registration groups hopeful as they head toward this year’s primary and general elections.

“I get calls everyday from volunteers who are very eager to get back to voter registration,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, during a conference call with media outlets this afternoon. “It doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside, they want to get back to work.”

Florida’s recently enacted—and controversial—election law, H.B. 1355, placed various restrictions and requirements on community-based voter registration efforts. Most notably, the law required registration forms to be turned into elections offices within 48 hours and also mandated that volunteers registering voters sign what critics termed an “intimidating” form that hinted at fines and/or jail time for infractions.

In the wake of the law’s passage, groups like the League of Women Voters put registration efforts on hold. In December of last year, the League—along with Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund—filed a lawsuit challenging the legislation. Today, a federal court preliminarily blocked enforcement of key portions of the law.

“Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one’s rights in a federal court. … [W]hen a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever,” U.S. Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote in his opinion. “And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives—thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote—promotes democracy.”

Groups involved with the suit are still assessing what the preliminary ruling means.

“This is a fresh decision,” said Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennen Center’s Democracy Program and an attorney who argued the case. “We’ve gotten it in the past two hours.”

While the implications are still being assessed, critics of the Florida law are clearly encouraged. The hastily scheduled conference call with the press was full of cautious optimism.

“At the end of the day there’s no question the judge agreed this law is unworkable and unreasonable and burdensome to our clients’ constitutional rights.”

The law has already taken a toll on voter registration efforts in the state. For the first half of a presidential election year, many groups were hesitant or dormant when it came to registration efforts.

“Unfortunately, we lost the spring,” said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, which focuses largely on student populations that are now out for summer break. “We lost a lot of ground … while we lost a lot of ground there’s enough time to make it up.”

Smith also noted that the preliminary ruling in Florida could serve as a lesson to similar situations in states across the country. The ruling also comes at a time when Florida is fighting the U.S. Department of Justice in a separate lawsuit regarding registration and early voting.

“This just sends a strong message,” she said. “If you try to restrict this kind of work in our country, it is unconstitutional and we will fight back.”

The next step in League of Women Voters/Rock the Vote lawsuit is a June 15 hearing. While Lee stressed she was optimistic, the attorney conceded that the final outcome is still unclear.

“At this point, we clearly have a window,” she said.

And though the League is taking time to assess the exact implications of the recent ruling, Macnab was clearly happy about the “window.”

“It is particularly exciting that the judge made the decision he did and groups like Rock the Vote and League of Women Voters can get back to work,” she said.