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The Republican-led Florida Legislature approved a controversial election law in 2011 that said third-party groups that collect voter registrations must submit them within 48 hours or face fines.
Republicans said that the new rules were necessary to prevent fraud, while Democrats said it would suppress the minority vote. Civic groups including the Florida League of Women Voters are challenging the law.
A March 2012 New York Times story stated that the law had curtailed voter registration drives in Florida by groups such as the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and on college campuses. Since the law took effect, 81,471 fewer Floridians registered than during the same period in 2008, according to the New York Times.
It’s difficult to determine how much of the drop in registrations is due to the new law or to other factors, such as less excitement compared to the 2008 race. The new voter registration rule is not in effect in five counties, including Hillsborough County, because those counties require pre-clearance from the federal government under the Voting Rights Act.
The day after the article, Florida Republican Party chair Lenny Curry discussed the new rules in an interview on MSNBC on March 28.
Host Chris Matthews explained that "the new law dramatically narrows the window that third-party groups are given to submit completed voter registration forms -- without facing a fine, that is. Before the law, they had 10 days. Now we have 48 hours to bring those forms back in."
Matthews asked Curry, "Is it reasonable to expect a person to show up within 48 hours with registration forms that they just had filled out say over a weekend?"
Curry: "Absolutely. Again, it’s good governance. Before this law, any group could go out anywhere, register voters, sit on the voter registration forms for unlimited amount of time. The
individual that registered to vote would have no idea whether or not their voter registration was submitted, and if the right party was submitted."
Was Curry correct that before the law, third-party groups could sit on those completed forms for an unlimited amount of time?
The 10-day rule
The answer depends on whether we rely on a strict reading of the former law or the reality of its enforcement.
The old law stated that third-party groups had to submit the registrations within 10 days. (That deadline could potentially be even shorter if election deadlines were approaching in less than 10 days.)
But the law didn’t provide a method to track whether the third-party groups complied with that time restriction, said Chris Cate, a spokesman with the Florida Secretary of State. When third-party groups dropped off voter registration applications, the forms did not identify the groups.
"They could turn them in a month late, but we wouldn’t know who turned in the forms," Cate said. "Though the law said 10 days, there was no way to know for sure that the groups had met that deadline. People ask how big a problem it was before the (new) law. We really don’t have a way to measure that. There was no way to track how many of these forms were coming in late."
Although the old law stated that late registrations could result in fines for third-party groups, no group was fined, Cate said.
Under the new law, third-party groups receive an identifying number, which they must place on the voter registration applications they submit. Applications collected by these organizations must be turned into the state Division of Elections or a county supervisor of elections within 48 hours or the next business day if the office is closed for that 48-hour period. Groups can meet the requirement by mailing in the forms.
The new law includes fines starting at $50 for each application received after 48 hours and a maximum of $1,000 per calendar year per group. The amounts of the fines are the same as the old law but kick in after 48 hours rather than 10 days. (During the MSNBC interview, host Matthews and Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a group that fights for voting rights, said it was up to $10,000, which is inaccurate.)
Since the new law went into effect in May 2011, the Division of Elections has sent 16 informational letters to third-party groups that didn’t follow the 48-hour rule and recommended that the attorney general fine three groups. There have been no fines as of early April 2012, according to attorney general spokeswoman Jenn Meale.
Lee Rowland, an attorney representing the Florida League of Women Voters in its quest to halt implementation of the law, said that even under the old law, there was a mechanism for complaints. Any citizen who believed a community based group didn’t fill out a form in a timely manner could have filled out a complaint form.
When the Legislature pursued the 48-hour window, supporters cited anecdotes about third-party groups submitting "dumps" of registrations, Rowland said. But they cited the same anecdotes in 2011 as they did when the Legislature approved the 10-day rule in 2005.
After its original passage, the 10-day deadline faced a court challenge. In 2007, it was amended to impose a $1,000 cap on fines and was upheld by the courts.
"It seems pretty clear to me the 10-day rule likely took care of any problems the Legislature was concerned about," Rowland said.
Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Kristen McDonald said that during the MSNBC interview, Curry was often interrupted and not given the opportunity to fully explain the context of his statement.
"Despite what the law may have said as far as number of days, there was no mechanism or ability of the state to enforce that number of days," she wrote in an email.
Before the 48-hour registration law was imposed, Curry explained that "any group could go out, register voters, sit on the voter registration forms for unlimited amount of time." Actually, the prior law had a 10-day rule for turning in voter registrations. Curry has a point that the state didn’t enforce the law -- an explanation he originally omitted. The state could have instituted measures to enforce the 10-day rule, instead of moving to the stricter 48-hour rule. Curry's comment gives the impression there was no rule at all. If third-party voter registration groups were sitting on registrations for unlimited amounts of time, even before the new measure, they were breaking the law. We rate Curry's statement Mostly False.
MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, March 28, 2012
New York Times, Florida’s new elections law blunts voter drives, March 27, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Florida voting law’s bad effects surface," March 28, 2012
Florida House, House Bill 1355, Approved by Gov. Rick Scott May 19, 2012
Florida Division of Elections, Third-party voter registration, Accessed April 2, 2012
Interview, Chris Cate, spokesman at the Florida Division of Elections, April 2, 2012
Interview, Lee Rowland, attorney, Brennan Center for Justice, April 2, 2012
Interview, Kristen McDonald, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, April 2, 2012
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