Florida judge strikes a blow for voters

I count members of the League of Women Voters among my political heroes.

Year after year, the League does some of the most important work of our democracy. Its members set up tables and sit for countless hours at shopping centers, churches, union halls, Moose lodges and pretty much every other public space available so they can help their fellow citizens register to vote.

And they do it all for no pay and precious little recognition.

So I jumped for joy on Thursday when a federal judge in Florida voided portions of a state law that essentially made it impossible for the League to do its work.

Allegedly fearful that thousands of non-citizens, felons and other un-qualified voters have gotten onto the voter rolls – and despite a total lack of evidence to support that fear – Florida legislators and Gov. Rick Scott imposed a list of restrictions on groups conducting registration drives.

Among other things, the Florida rules require that the League and other groups submit completed registration applications within 48 hours of collection, that they notify the state within 10 days when a volunteer or employee involved in circulating or collecting registration forms leaves the organization, and that they submit monthly reports to state detailing the number of registration forms they’ve distributed and received.

The blizzard of rules and regulations, from a state legislature that works hard to  avoid regulating most businesses, had driven the League and other groups, including Rock the Vote, to announce that they would no longer conduct registration drives.

But U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle called the 48-hour deadline “harsh and impractical” and dismissed Florida’s attempts to justify it and other provisions of the law. “An election-code provision . . . must serve a legitimate purpose that is sufficient to warrant the burden it imposes on the right to vote,’’ he wrote.

The judge’s decision, which Florida may yet appeal, sends a “slow down” message to state legislatures across the country, dozens of which are considering or already have passed their own laws limiting voting rights. It’s a message they should  heed.

One other point: What’s really behind all these laws is a quest for partisan advantage.

Because registration drives typically pull in disproportionate numbers of Democratic voters — minorities, students, new citizens, the handicapped and the elderly – the Republicans who dominate state government in Florida and the other states where voting rights recently have been restricted have set out to make registering and voting more difficult. They would do better to focus on selling their views and their candidates to ALL the voters and encouraging rather than frustrating registration drives.

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