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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida elections bill would further restrict voter registration groups

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed a 98-page elections bill within 24 hours after filing it on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Valerie Crowder
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed a 98-page elections bill within 24 hours after filing it on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

A 98-page elections bill filed by Republicans in the Florida Senate would place additional restrictions on voter registration groups.

Voting rights advocates in Florida are expressing concern that an elections bill in the state Senate would make it harder for community groups to register voters, but elections supervisors have called for stricter rules.

“We saw that it has a lot more restrictions on third-party voter registration organizations," said Amy Keith, program director for Common Cause Florida, an organization that works to ensure fair and free elections. "When you put more rules, when you put more fines, you restrict their work."

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed the 98-page measure — SB 7050 — along party lines on Tuesday, one day after the committee proposed it. It would place several new restrictions on voter registration groups, such as giving them less time to return voter registration forms to elections offices and higher late fees.

"When you restrict a small community organization, and you put more of a burden on them, they don't have the ability to comply," Keith said.

Last year, lawmakers enacted legislation that requires voter registration groups to notify potential voters that they might not return their application.

There are more than 1,900 active third-party voter registration organizations registered with the state division of elections. They range from local political party chapters and nonpartisan community organizations to churches and student groups.

Elections supervisors have had issues with some organizations turning in invalid or incomplete voter registration forms over the years, prompting proposed changes to the law, explained Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley, who's also the president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, the statewide association of county elections supervisors.

"Many folks throughout government are aware that this is a problem that supervisors have been facing over quite a few years," Earley said. "It's something that certainly we've talked to legislators about. We've talked to the Office of the Election Crimes and Security. The Secretary of State is well aware."

The Senate elections bill would shorten deadlines and increase late penalties

The legislation would shorten the amount of time voter registration groups have to return completed voter registration forms to county elections offices from 14 days to 10 days after they're collected from the potential voter. It would also increase penalties for turning in forms late.

Right now, there's a one time late fee of $50 for each late application. Under the measure, an organization would have to pay $50 for every day that the application is late.

David Ramba, a lobbyist for the state's elections supervisors, defended the ten-day turnaround period and the increased penalties for returning forms late. "If an eighteen-year-old kid registers to vote because his birthday’s in September and it's before the November book closing and they don’t turn it in on time, then he’s lost his right to vote in that November election."

It would also double the maximum amount that voter registration groups can be fined in a given year from $50,000 to $100,000.

“They want to put us out of business clearly," said Cecile Scoon, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, which is a third-party voter registration organization that also helps smaller voter registration groups. "To keep raising the fines when there is nothing going on?”

Since 2018, more than 273,000 voters have registered through third-party organizations, state elections data shows.

These organizations are especially important in registering Black and Brown residents, Scoon explained. “There’s still so much distrust of government because there’s still day-to-day discrimination going on today," Scoon said. As a result, many Black residents don't feel comfortable going to a government building to register to vote, which is where community-based organizations can help.

Scoon is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which helps register Bay County residents to vote at community events. “When we have our fairs, everybody comes," Scoon said. "When we register voters, everybody comes because we’re a trusted source.”

Elections supervisors have had issues with some voter registration groups submitting incomplete, invalid forms

There's a broad spectrum of third-party voter registration groups, and many of the organizations are doing "important work," explained Leon County Elections Supervisor Mark Earley. "But there's a few really bad apples, and it's been hard to get a handle on that."

In Leon County, the office has received hundreds and hundreds of voter registration forms from third-party groups that couldn't be processed over the years, Earley said.

"There have been some cases of batches of voter registration applications, where ninety percent or more were incomplete or invalid," he said. "We couldn't process them, and I don't know if that's harming voters who are trying to get on the rolls or if that's potential fraud being perpetrated by someone who's collecting the voter registration forms themselves."

The Senate elections bill would require those organizations to register with the state every general election cycle, instead of one time.

Supervisors have also had issues with maintaining accurate lists of voter registration groups because they sometimes stop operating without notifying the state Division of Elections, Earley said. "There does need to be some cleaning up of that, also."

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.