Members of groups challenging Florida’s new voter registration law say they are cautiously optimistic about their chances to win an overall legal victory following a federal judge’s order blocking parts of the law.
Just days after the law went into effect, U.S. Chief District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee granted a preliminary injunction on Monday forbidding enforcement of provisions banning non-U.S. citizens from collecting or handling voter registrations, and third-party voter registration organizations from retaining voters’ information. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure in late May, before embarking on his formal presidential campaign.
“Our need for urgency was given that the law went into effect July 1, and our clients were almost immediately impacted,” said attorney Cesar Ruiz, who represents the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF, in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.
“So, there was a significant risk of harm to our organizational clients and also to our individual clients. We were happy the judge issued his decision as quickly as he did, and we’re thrilled with the outcome,” Ruiz said.
Although the law, SB 7050, would not be enforced until September, the organizations still would have faced fines of $50,000 for each infraction they committed starting in July. With the protection of Judge Walker’s order, third-party voter registration organizations have temporary relief from drastically altering their programming, said Frederick Vélez III Burgos, national director in Miami of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation.
The Hispanic Federation is among the plaintiffs — others include the ACLU, NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and non-citizen canvassers — suing Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Attorney General Ashley Moody.
The Florida Department of State does not comment on pending litigation, wrote Natalie Meiner, director of communications for the agency, in an email to the Phoenix. Moody’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A racist assumption
More than 70% of the Hispanic Federation canvassers are non-citizens, Vélez III Burgos said. Over the past seven years they have registered 100,000 voters, and the organization estimates that 30% of those voters would not have otherwise registered. Therefore, a law prohibiting most of their canvassers’ efforts to get out the vote would severely impair one of the organization’s main functions.
“This is something that we’ve been working hard on, and while it doesn’t stop the whole law from going into place it does solve one of the most concerning things that we’ve seen, which was not allowing non-citizens who are residents of the state to participate in the voter registration process by helping register people,” Vélez III Burgos said in a phone interview.
“That was very disturbing. We didn’t see a logical explanation of why non-citizens can’t register people. So, we were very happy with the decision. We see it as justice being served. We’re hoping that as we go to trial, we’re going to be successful.”
Lawyers for the state argued that non-citizens should not be allowed to collect or handle voter registration applications on the assumption they are less likely to turn them in on time, attorney Mohammad Jazil said during a June 28 hearing.
Although he provided evidence that applications had been submitted past the deadline, there was no evidence that banning non-citizens from handling or collecting applications would solve that problem, Judge Walker said in the opinion.
Canvassers with the Hispanic Federation are not responsible for submitting voter registration applications — that’s the job of others within the organizations, Vélez III Burgos said.
“We’ve never had those issues,” he said. “So, for us, it has to be some type of racist undertone or racist motivation.”
Placing such restrictions on voter-registration efforts disillusioned people working with the Hispanic Federation who immigrated from countries suffering political turmoil, Vélez III Burgos said. For canvassers who were lawyers in their home countries, it was disappointing, he said.
“They see the United States as someplace where voter rights are not dampened or not restricted, where everyone can participate even if they’re not a citizen,” he said, “and this is kind of like their way of participating in this democracy.”
Another aspect of the law Judge Walker blocked outlawed third-party voter registration organizations from retaining new registrants’ information, which the challengers argued would hamper their ability to provide civic education, fact-check applications, and conduct quality control surveys.
“For the time being, [the preliminary injunction] allows our clients to breathe,” Ruiz said. “They were very stressed out about what this law was going to do in their operations. ”
Walker also called out the vagueness of language used in the statue spelling out the kind of information organizations couldn’t keep or what handling and collection of applications meant. He said the state could not solve the vagueness problem through enacting regulations.
“The state of Florida is correct to seek integrity in our electoral system,” Walker wrote in his 58-page decision. “Sound election laws ensure the people are heard without distortion from negligent and bad-faith actors. Here, however, Florida’s solutions for preserving election integrity are too far removed from the problems it has put forward as justifications.”
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