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Judge, Justice Department Weigh In On Who Can Vote In Florida

"I Voted" stickers are left ready for voters at a polling station on Jan. 31, the day of Florida's presidential primary, in Tampa.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
"I Voted" stickers are left ready for voters at a polling station on Jan. 31, the day of Florida's presidential primary, in Tampa.

In Florida, a battle is heating up on several fronts over who will be allowed to vote in the upcoming primary and the November general election.

In Tallahassee, a federal judge has blocked state elections officials from enforcing tough restrictions on groups that conduct voter registration drives.

And in Washington, the Justice Department has sent a letter to Florida telling it to immediately halt efforts to purge from the voting rolls people suspected of being noncitizens.

Because of the restrictions on registering voters, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote stopped conducting voter registration drives in Florida. Those groups challenged the new law in court. On Thursday, Judge Robert Hinkle sided with the groups — saying the new rules were onerous, unconstitutional and served little purpose except to discourage voter registration drives.

The rules that were halted on Thursday did a number of things, all of which placed greater burdens on groups that register new voters. For one thing, all people taking part in voter registration drives, even volunteers who just hand out forms, had to first register with the state and sign a sworn statement.

The groups also had to notify the state if any volunteers stopped working with them. Groups like Rock the Vote say that's impractical. They say they depend on student volunteers who may join spontaneously and work on the campaign for a few hours or a few days.

Even tougher for the groups was a provision requiring them to hand in completed forms within 48 hours, rather than the 10 days they had previously. That made it all but impossible to mail in the forms, and created a tight deadline that groups weren't sure they could meet.

And all the provisions included substantial penalties. Among those affected were some teachers in Florida who, unaware of the new restrictions, handed out voter registration forms to students and failed to turn them in within the required time period.

In his order granting an injunction, Hinkle was scathing about many provisions of the law. On the 48-hour deadline, 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 other provisions, he said, were unconstitutional and violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.

But that's just one of several battles over Florida's voting rules.

The law passed last year does some other controversial things, beyond the provisions relating to voter registration drives the judge blocked. Among them is cutting back on the number of days allocated for early voting. Those provisions are being examined by another federal court.

Democrats and voting-rights groups say the law especially targets minority voters and are seeking to have it overturned under the Voting Rights Act.

And while all that's been going on, the administration of Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, has been moving ahead on a plan to purge people from the voting rolls it believes may not be U.S. citizens. Voting-rights groups and Democrats have charged it's an attempt to suppress the vote ahead of what's expected to be a close presidential election in Florida.

On Thursday, the Justice Department weighed in. The department's lead civil rights lawyer sent a letter to Florida officials saying that the purge appears to violate a federal law prohibiting this kind of thing 90 days before an election. Florida has a primary scheduled on Aug. 14. The Justice Department says because the state is covered by the federal Voting Rights Act, the voter purge must be approved by the federal government before it can go forward.

All of which makes the battle over who can vote in Florida a growing mess for the Scott administration.

With the court order blocking much of the new elections law, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote say they hope to resume registering voters but want to carefully read the judge's opinion before going forward. And on Florida's efforts to purge noncitizens from the voter lists, the Justice Department gave the Scott administration until next Wednesday to let it know how it plans to proceed.

Greg Allen discussed the issue on Friday's Morning Edition.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.