DeSantis’ signature on voting bill draws lawsuit from League of Women Voters of FL
‘Yet another assault on democracy and attempt to muzzle Floridians’
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Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation making it much more burdensome for voter-registration groups to sign up new voters, prompting an immediate constitutional challenge from the League of Women Voters of Florida.
The new law, SB 7050, was among 20 items of legislation that the governor signed before announcing his presidential candidacy on Wednesday. He had basically nothing to say about the elections bill, merely noting in a message to legislative leaders that he had attached his signature to that and the other bills.
The League of Women Voters of Florida Inc. and League of Women Voters of Florida Education Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee alleging that, in violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments, the law imposes unacceptable burdens on one of the groups’ core functions: encouraging participation in politics by signing up new voters. They ask the court to block the law’s enforcement.
“This is a lawsuit challenging burdensome, unnecessary, and irrational restrictions on constitutionally protected voter registration speech and activity of third-party voter registration organizations (‘3PVROs’) in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment,” the 49-page complaint asserts.
“Senate Bill 7050 is yet another assault on democracy and attempt to muzzle Floridians,” Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a written statement.
“Florida seems intent on making the act of voting nerve-racking. We are forced to turn to the courts to ensure nonpartisan community-based voter registration organizations, like the League, can continue their important work of registering voters and ensure voters have equal and meaningful access to the ballot box,” Scoon said.
‘Pilars of democracy’
“Folks helping their neighbors access and exercise the fundamental freedom to vote is one of the pillars of our democracy,” added Paul Smith, senior vice president at Campaign Legal Center, which filed the suit on the League’s behalf, in his own statement.
“Instead of celebrating civic engagement groups for their work to encourage participation in our democracy, Florida legislators restricted and penalized basic voter outreach efforts. This action will directly harm members of historically marginalized communities — including voters of color, low-income voters, voters with disabilities and young voters — who rely on these nonpartisan efforts to help make their voices heard.”
As the Phoenix has reported, HB 7050 is the third major bill to reform the state’s election system in the past three legislative sessions, despite the fact that Florida’s GOP leaders have boasted about how successful the 2020 and 2022 elections were conducted.
Notably, the law established that governors like DeSantis need not resign as governor to run for president; Florida’s resign-to-run law might have required that had DeSantis not signed the legislation.
The lawsuit names as defendants Attorney General Ashley Moody, who’s responsible for enforcing the new law and Secretary of State Cord Byrd, who runs the Division of Elections, who would refer violations to the A.G.’s office.
The complaint asserts violation of the League’s First Amendment rights to free speech and expressive conduct and free association. Furthermore, its provisions are unconstitutionally overbroad, “as they needlessly regulate a substantial amount of constitutionally protected expression and associations.”
“SB 7050’s threat of civil and criminal penalties for violations will impermissibly chill LWVFL’s protected speech, including the League and its members’ efforts to promote civic participation and educate voters about, and assist them with, the process for registering to vote,” the complaint says.
Also, the law is unconstitutionally vague, failing to give “fair notice of who must comply with its requirements and under what circumstances, or whether and how to comply with those provisions.”
Finally, the lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, which applied the First Amendment to the states.
The law forbids organizations from using convicted felons to collect registration forms, making no allowance for people who have won restoration of their civil and voting rights or clarity about the status of convictions in other states or federal courts, the complaint notes. They’d be subject to $50,000 fines for every such person who collects forms. The same penalty applies for anyone who’s not a U.S. citizen.
“Determining not only whether its members who volunteer to conduct voter registration are all U.S. citizens but also whether they have been convicted of specific felony offenses would require the League to devote significant time, effort, and resources from other programs and efforts,” the complaint says.
“Moreover, excluding individuals from League membership or its membership activities on the basis of citizenship status or criminal history is inconsistent with the League’s associational values.”
The law requires these third-party groups to collect information including drivers’ licenses, Social Security numbers, or signatures from people registering to vote, but bars organizations from retaining “personal information” without defining specifically what that means, the complaint adds.
“Moreover, SB 7050 subjects the League, its staff, and its members to civil and criminal penalties if they retain the voter’s personal information, even as part of their recordkeeping to defend against any complaints of noncompliance with SB 7050,” it says.
The law shortens the deadline for delivering registration forms to the new voters’ county supervisors of elections from 14 days under the old law to just 10, with fines of $50 per each day one is delivered late, up to a maximum of $2,500. If the forms arrive after the voter rolls close for a particular election, the fines shoot up to $100 per day, up to $5,000.
If the organization never delivers a form at all, the fine is $500 per application or $5,000 if the failure is willful.
Total fines possible under the law are $250,000 per year. The complaint notes that the League’s budget during the past fiscal year was $268,425.
“Together, these provisions place 3PVROs in a tenuous position by requiring distribution of ‘receipts’ to voters to facilitate the filing of complaints that could result in serious penalties while restraining 3PVROs’ own recordkeeping to document their compliance with SB 7050’s onerous requirements,” the complaint says.
It notes that the League regularly hosts voter-registration drives at large gatherings attended by people from wide geographic areas; the law requires the organization to expend money to deliver forms to far-flung county supervisors’ of elections offices or else take the chance that the Postal Service will deliver on time.
“These community-based voter registration efforts are particularly important in Florida, where, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, only 63.2% of the citizen voting-age population was registered to vote in 2022 — placing Florida 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia,” the complaint says.
The law requires third-party groups to reregister with the Division of Elections at the opening of each two-year election cycle.
‘Onerous, overbroad, vague’
“This requirement is especially problematic because Florida also requires the registration documents sent to the division to include the names and addresses of each and every person who will assist people with voter registration on behalf of the 3PVRO. Further, re-registration means that every two years, the League will need to expend the time and resources necessary to assess and affirm that non-citizens and people with certain specified felony convictions do not collect or handle voter registration applications,” the complaint says.
“These onerous, overbroad, and vague requirements do not serve and cannot be justified by any compelling or legitimate state interest. The challenged provisions’ only aim, and indeed, only effect, is to limit the ability of 3PVROs like LWVFL to register eligible Florida citizens to vote, and in so doing, persuade them to action by participating in the electoral process,” the document reads.
“Indeed, SB 7050 is part of a decades-long pattern of the Florida Legislature seeking to punish and deter the expressive conduct of third-party civic engagement organizations like LWVFL. The Legislature’s purpose is made even clearer by the fact that it has continued to pass laws creating new obstacles for 3PVROs despite multiple court decisions declaring its previous attempts unconstitutional.”
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