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Florida voter registration restrictions get a First Amendment challenge in federal court

A person showing a clipboard to another person at the entrance of a home
Valerie Crowder
A volunteer canvasser with the Big Bend Voting Rights Project helps a voter in Tallahassee complete their application form on Aug. 19, 2023.

A 2023 Florida law states voter registration groups that employ non-U.S. citizens can face fines of up to $250,000, while making it a felony for canvassers to collect personal information. The groups say the law could be “fatal” for them, “to the detriment of marginalized voters across the state.”

Concerns about voter suppression are at the heart of an ongoing federal trial over a Florida law that stops non-U.S. citizens from registering voters.

Voter registration groups say the threat of fines for breaking the law — which can reach as much as $250,000 per year — have already dramatically reduced their canvassing staff, with one organization estimating a loss of as much as 75%.

The plaintiffs suing the office of Secretary of State Cord Byrd argue the law, enacted last year, violates the First Amendment. They have told the court they fear a decline in voter registration, particularly in locations like Miami where many of those they register struggle with registration forms due to a language barrier.

“This is not something that we’re here to do because we’re happy to be in a lawsuit against the state,” said Frederick Vélez III Burgos, communications director for Hispanic Federation, a group that’s helped register nearly 100,000 voters in the state, most of whom are Latino, since 2016. “This is something that we’re doing as a last measure to defend the rights of voters.”

READ MORE: Federal judge rejects 'impartiality' allegation, stays on Florida voter-registration case

In three lawsuits being heard jointly, the Hispanic Federation, civil rights group NAACP and non-profit League of Women Voters of Florida are challenging a provision of the 2023 law that prevents residents who may legally work in the U.S., but aren’t citizens, from “handling” or “collecting” voter registration forms. They are also challenging other new restrictions that change the way they go about collecting and submitting voter registration forms.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker for the Northern District of Florida is presiding over the joint-trial, which is expected to last a couple of weeks. Last summer, Walker issued a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the provision of the law that applies to residents who lack citizenship status, but left other aspects of the statute in place.

“Helping citizens to register to vote is protected speech, pure and simple. This law also silences civic-minded groups, and the people who would work for them."
Victoria Ochoa, attorney with the ACLU

Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case argue that the law violates the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which requires states to provide equal protection of the laws to all residents, regardless of citizenship status.

“Helping citizens to register to vote is protected speech, pure and simple,” said Victoria Ochoa, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs. “This law also silences civic-minded groups, and the people who would work for them. It severely limits our clients’ efforts to register voters in underserved communities.”

Attorneys for the state argue that the law doesn’t violate the First Amendment because it governs conduct, not speech, and it doesn’t prevent anyone from working for a voter registration group based on their citizenship status.

In their trial brief, they also argue that the law is needed to prevent voter registration groups from turning in forms late to elections offices, falsifying information on those forms and stealing personal information from voters, issues that have come up in the past. But according to evidence and witness testimony presented at trial, fraud and mistakes aren’t common among voter registration groups.

Third-degree felony to retain 'information'

Alongside the non-citizen provision, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida are also challenging a provision that makes it a third-degree felony for anyone who works for a voter registration group to copy or retain a voter’s "information" outside of registration forms to be delivered to their county elections office. They argue the wording is so vague that it does not rule out information groups normally seek to keep for future contact, such as a voter’s name, address and email.

Additionally, organizations in many cases now must give those voters a receipt, and keep a copy for their records. But in a challenge to that provision, the League argues that the receipt contains some of the same personal information that appears on the voter’s application – and could make them run afoul of the law against retaining a voter’s information. The nonpartisan group is also challenging increased fines for delivering registration forms late or the wrong county.

In their opening statements, attorneys for the NAACP, which registers voters, argued that making it a felony for canvassers to collect personal information deters them from their work and hinders the organization’s “civic engagement efforts.” They argued that the restrictions coupled with the increased fines, has the potential to be “fatal” to voter registration groups, “to the detriment of marginalized voters across the state.”

Attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Florida, which registers voters across the state, argue in their complaint that the added restrictions and increased fines are “burdensome, unnecessary and irrational” on voter registration groups’ “constitutionally protected” speech and activity.

The Florida League’s president Cecile Scoon testified in court that without the ability to keep certain information, it is difficult for them to fulfill their mission of getting as many people to vote as possible. “Citizens ask us to remind them of when elections are,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to provide that service to them.”

A canvasser with Hispanic Federation helps a voter complete their registration form at an event in Orlando in 2020.
Hispanic Federation
A canvasser with Hispanic Federation helps a voter complete their registration form at an event in Orlando in 2020.

Voter registration groups struggle to hire canvassers

Canvassers typically spend a lot of time working outside in hot, humid weather, reaching voters at community events or by knocking on doors in local neighborhoods, explained Jared Nordlund, state director for UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization that employed about 50-60 canvassers before the law was enacted last year.

“It’s hard to find U.S. citizens who want to take a job like this,” he said.“They typically have better job opportunities, or they want a full-time, year-round job, and our temporary jobs like this for canvassers aren’t ones they want.”

UnidosUS is holding off on employing people who aren’t citizens as voter registration canvassers, even though the law is temporarily blocked by the court. That’s forced them to lay off employees, resulting in a nearly 75% reduction in canvassing staff since the law was enacted, Nordlund said.

“A lot of them, we've known for a decade, and they've used our organization to improve their work skills,” he said. “It means that we have to let go people that we’ve known for a decade, and they can’t work with us anymore, and we think that’s wrong.”

Nordlund testified in court on Monday that his organization has registered nearly 400,000 voters in the state over the last decade. “If we weren't out there, I know for a fact, a certain subset of those 400,000 would never have voted in the first place,” he told WLRN.

About 200,000 of those voters were in Miami, he said. “Most of the people who need our help probably aren’t very fluent in English or have a hard time filling out government forms,” he said. “There’s no substitute for groups like ours, and so we know that our existence is important to the community.”

During this year’s lawmaking session, the legislature didn’t pass any new restrictions on voter registration groups.

Last year’s restrictions, however, followed a 2022 law that increased the maximum amount of fines in a given year to $50,000 dollars from $1,000. That maximum amount is now $250,000 under the law enacted last year. The 2022 law also gave voter registration groups less time to return completed forms to local elections offices and increased fines for missing deadlines.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley testified in court on Wednesday that he’s seen a marked decline in registration forms since the 2022 law took effect. “We saw a marked decrease in volume” of voter registration group activity, Earley said on the stand, adding that the trend has continued under last year’s law.

In 2021, lawmakers enacted SB 90, requiring those groups to deliver forms back to the county where they reside, instead of also allowing them to return the form directly to the state Division of Elections.

“This is definitely a trend,” said Burgos, of the Hispanic Federation. “Every single year, something gets added in to attack not only the rights of voters, but also the rights of organizations, such as Hispanic Federation that are out there in the community registering folks.”

The trial will continue into the weekend, with evidentiary hearings set for Saturday and Sunday. Witness testimony will continue through next week.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.