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Fla. Judge Blocks Parts Of Voter Registration Law


Let's turn now to Florida, where a federal judge has blocked portions of a new election law that was causing a lot of debate. That law had put tough restrictions on groups conducting voter registration drives. Because of the restrictions, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote stopped registering votes(ph) in the state. Those groups challenged the new law in court. And yesterday, Judge Robert Hinkle sided with the groups. He called the rules onerous and unconstitutional.

Also yesterday, another development on Florida voting: The Justice Department sent a letter to the state telling it to immediately halt a purge of voters suspected to be noncitizens.

NPR's Greg Allen has been following all of this, and he joins us from Miami. Good morning, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Well, let's start with this court decision. What happened?

ALLEN: Well, the court decision basically put on hold a number of new rules on - restrictions on groups that register voters, do registration drives. They did a number of things, all of which made it much harder to do this kind of work. For one thing, all the people who take part in voter registration drives - even the volunteers who hand out forms - have to first register with the state, and sign a sworn statement, before they begin their work.

And the groups have to notify the state if any of those volunteers stop working with them. So for groups like Rock the Vote, who depend on student volunteers - who may just join spontaneously, and work for a few hours or so - they say that was impractical for them, and just made it impossible for them to do their work.

Even worse for the groups was a provision that requires them to hand in completed voter registration forms within 48 hours, rather than the 10 days that they used to have. That makes it all but impossible to use the mail to send forms in. It makes a very tight deadline. The groups have to hand-deliver these. And the problem with all these provisions is that they have substantial penalties and fines.

And there was a case of a couple of teachers in Florida who ran afoul of the law, who were unaware of the restrictions; handed out voter registration forms to students, failed to turn them in within the 48-hour period, and then faced penalties. So that's why the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote didn't - stopped registering voters, and decided to go to court.

GREENE: OK, so the state is trying to put these rules in place to restrict some of these activities. But don't state officials have the right to do that? I mean, what did the court end up saying was legally wrong with these efforts?

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, Judge Robert Hinkle - in Tallahassee - upheld some parts of the law, but he was scathing about these other provisions, the one we just talked about. About that 48-hour deadline - let me find it, the quote here - he said: "If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus, also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed."

That, and some of the other provisions, he said, were just flatly unconstitutional. They restricted First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and they also violated the National Voting Rights Act.

GREENE: Well, so will these groups now be going out into the streets again? I mean, can they get back to work?

ALLEN: Yes. I mean, I think the belief is that they will get back out there and start registering voters soon. And they say they want to look over the law and see what they can - and understand it before they get back out there.

GREENE: Well, you know, you've been on the air a lot this week, right? I mean, this is just one of several legal disputes in Florida over who can vote and when. I mean - and there's another development, as I understand it, from the Justice Department.

ALLEN: Right. I mean, yesterday late, the Justice Department sent a letter to the state about this voter purge that's been going on. The - Florida's - the administration of Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, has been moving ahead on a plan to purge people from the voting rolls that it believes may not be U.S. citizens. That's got some controversy in the state. Voting rights groups and Democrats charge that it's an attempt to suppress the vote ahead of what's expected to be a close presidential election.

So then yesterday, we get this letter from the Justice Department to Florida officials, saying that they believe the purge appears to violate a federal law which prohibits this kind of thing 90 days before an election. And Florida has a primary coming up on August 16th, so we're within that 90-day window. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Florida's primary is Aug. 14.] The Justice Department, in its letter, says because it's covered under the Voting Rights Act, Florida has to submit this voter purge to the federal government before it can go forward. So it's all turning into a real mess right now for the Scott administration.

GREENE: And Greg, what is the mood in Florida? I mean, this is a state that has had many election-related disputes before. I mean, everybody remembers Bush-Gore. I mean, are people kind of sick of these legal battles?

ALLEN: Well, you know, I think what you realize, that it's hand-to-hand combat here. We're coming up on an election and, you know, there are already groups - despite these rules, some groups are out registering voters. And there's - it's - this is how the game's played. You know, you use the rules that you've gotten.

And they try to get in there and register - the Democrats want to register as many as they can. Republicans want to get their people to the polls. And the rules about how you do so are part of the game, and they're jockeying right now over that.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Greg Allen, joining us from Miami. Thanks so much, Greg.

ALLEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
We cited an incorrect date for the Florida primary election. It will be held on Aug. 14.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.