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Voter registration groups in Florida have scaled down their operations after new restrictions

Tallahassee resident Julian Boise puts a completed voter registration form in his mailbox after volunteers with the Big Bend Voting Rights Project visited his home on the city's South Side on Saturday, August, 19, 2023. Boise needed to change his address to vote in Leon County following his recent move from Jefferson County.
Valerie Crowder
Tallahassee resident Julian Boise puts a completed voter registration form in his mailbox after volunteers with the Big Bend Voting Rights Project visited his home on the city's South Side on Saturday, August, 19, 2023. Boise needed to change his address to vote in Leon County following his recent move from Jefferson County.

Voter registration groups in Florida are helping fewer citizens sign up to cast an elections ballot, nearly a year after increased penalties for rules violations went into effect.

Volunteers with the Big Bend Voting Rights Project are no longer registering voters — but that isn’t stopping them from helping citizens in North Florida register to vote themselves.

Every week, they canvass neighborhoods where official records show many people aren’t registered, explained Barry Munroe, a volunteer with the organization.

The organization is no longer listed as a “third-party voter registration group,” and they’re not delivering completed forms to elections offices on behalf of the voters they register. Instead, they’re helping voters complete those applications. And when that’s done, they provide the voter with a stamped envelope addressed to their county elections office.

“We’re still getting used to a new way of doing everything,” Munroe said. “Our goal is to get as many registrations completed as possible.”

A state law that took effect last July increased fines for voter registration groups if applications contain mistakes, are delivered to the wrong county or are returned later than the law requires. Organizations could face maximum fines of $250,000 a year.

The law also prohibits people who aren’t U.S. citizens from handling or collecting voter registration forms on behalf of one of those groups. But there’s no such requirement for local elections offices.

Munroe and volunteer Pam Stewart helped one voter, who had recently moved to Leon County from Jefferson County, update his address. They watched as 40-year-old Tallahassee resident Julian Boise put the form in his mailbox before the canvassers moved on to the next house on their list.

Stricter voting registration rules 

State lawmakers started adding new regulations for voter registration groups, following the November 2020 elections when former President Donald Trump falsely claimed he lost the election due to widespread voter fraud. In 2021, state leaders enacted a law that required those groups to tell voters that they might not deliver the forms to elections offices on time.

That provision was upheld by a federal appeals court. In 2022, state lawmakers increased the maximum fines voter registration groups could face in a given year to $50,000 from $1,000 if they make mistakes or deliver the forms late. Last year, lawmakers capped fines at $250,000 a year — forcing many registration groups to drastically change how they go about helping register voters.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says he’s seen a dramatic reduction in the number of forms returned to his office from voter registration groups. In 2021 and 2022, his office received about 10,000 voter registration applications. Since last year, that number has fallen to only six, he said.

“The volumes are much lower, and I think mostly — especially some of these smaller groups, the more community-based organizations — it’s just not worth the risk because they can be held personally liable for thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in fines.”

Earley says the vast majority of forms returned by voter registration groups to his office over the years have contained no errors and no evidence of fraud.

“I think they provide a very good function. They reach communities that are more difficult, I think, for supervisors and other government agencies to reach,” he said. “I think that's a benefit to voters in our communities.”

READ MORE: Florida voter registration restrictions get First Amendment challenge in federal court

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd was involved in crafting the legislation, and defended it during a state Senate committee meeting last year when lawmakers were considering another increase in fines.

“There are many good third-party voter registration organizations who are not violating the law, but there are some who are frequent violators and we want to hold them accountable because when they mess up it disenfranchises a voter,” Byrd explained to lawmakers.

But the increased penalties has forced voter registration groups to scale own operations.

In 2021, more than 36,000 voters were registered through organizations like Mi Vecino Florida.

 Verónica Herrera-Lucha, of Mi Vecino
Mi Vecino
Verónica Herrera-Lucha, of Mi Vecino

Now that the laws have changed, the organization is focusing solely on educating voters, said Verónica Herrera-Lucha, the group’s state field director.

“Even though we’re having these conversations with voters, we’re not able to actually register them to vote," said Herrera-Lucha, who spoke to WLRN in Spanish. “At the end of the day, I feel like the work is not complete. Because I’m not sure if the person is going to register to vote or not.”

Herrerra-Lucha is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a provision of the law that prevents people who lack citizenship status from quote “handling” or “collecting” voter registration forms. She says the law unfairly targets immigrants.

“Well, this law is basically discriminatory, and it is a humiliating law towards Hispanics who are not yet citizens,” she said.

And as a result of limiting their activity, plaintiffs in the trial say they’re concerned that fewer voters will cast a ballot in future elections.

Cesar Ruiz is an attorney representing Herrarra-Lucha and two other individual plaintiffs, along with the Hispanic Federation and Poder Latin X.

“We feel confident in the evidence that we put forward and we feel strongly about our clients rights, and that they've been infringed upon.”

Last year, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker temporarily blocked part of the law because it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to apply laws equally to all residents regardless of their citizenship status.

Walker is also weighing the constitutionality of the increased fines, and is expected to issue a decision by the fall.
Copyright 2024 WLRN. To see more, visit WLRN.

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.