DESPITE ORDER TO IMPLEMENT IT, FEDERAL VOTING RIGHTS ACT AND FLORIDA RULES REQUIRE PRECLEARANCE OF NEW LAW BEFORE IT CAN BE IMPLEMENTED ANYWHERE
June 3, 2011 CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, (786) 363-2737 or email@example.com
MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL) today announced it filed suit in federal court seeking to block implementation of sweeping new reforms to Florida’s elections laws until the law can be reviewed and examined by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – as required by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA).
On May 18, 2011 Governor Rick Scott signed House Bill 1355 (HB1355) which enacted several changes to Florida’s election laws and procedures which trigger review by the DOJ. On May 19, 2011, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning issued Directive 2011-01 which directed local elections officials to immediately implement the changes.
In addition, a May 18, 2011, an Associated Press story reported:
Secretary of State Kurt Browning said the law will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance under the federal Voting Rights Act to determine if it discriminates against minority voters.
If U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder determines that it does, the law cannot be enforced.
Until the Justice Department makes a decision the law will be in effect everywhere except five counties for which preclearance is required, Browning said.
The suit filed today seeks to block the implementation of the law in all 67 Florida Counties not just the five subject to DOJ preclearance.
“We believe the laws, rules and related cases are clear – Florida cannot implement the new law anywhere in the state until the Justice Department conducts a review or until the DC federal court approves the changes,” said Laughlin McDonald, Voting Rights Project Director of the ACLU. “That review is needed and until it happens, we’re asking the court to stop this law from moving forward.”
In addition to Section 5 of the VRA requiring preclearance and supporting case law, an opinion issued by the Division of Elections supports the position that DOJ preclearance is required before a new voting law can be implemented. Opinion DE 98-13 reads in part, “Application of new election laws are contingent upon preclearance by the Justice Department pursuant to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thus, the effective date of any such laws are delayed until such preclearance is obtained.”
The lawsuit is brought by the ACLU of Florida and Project Vote, a national nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C. that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities.
Plaintiffs in today’s suit include State Senator Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) and Representative Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) and former Senator Helen Gordon Davis also of Hillsborough County as well as other registered voters in Collier and Monroe Counties – three of the five counties covered by the Voting VRA – areas in which changes to election laws are required to be precleared.
During the Legislative Session, HB1355 was rewritten several times with late, complete changes and limited public testimony. The bill was passed by lawmakers on May 5, 2011 and presented to the Governor the next day.
“In six weeks this law was conceived, drafted behind closed doors, jammed through the Legislature, signed by the Governor and is being rushed to a speedy and illegal implementation,” said Sen. Joyner. “Floridians are entitled, by law, to have these changes reviewed before they are used to deny people the right to vote.”
The suit does not address the merits of the law or whether the changes in the law should be approved by the DOJ. Although it’s clear many of the law’s provisions could have a “retrogressive” impact on the rights of racial and language minority voters whose rights are protected by the VRA, concerns about the impact of the bill will be raised later, once the DOJ review is initiated.
“This rushed law is a trifecta of voter suppression – making it harder for you to register to vote, harder to vote and harder to have your vote counted,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “This new massive law has nothing to do with improving elections and everything to do with who will get to vote in 2012 and we’re ready to have that conversation with the Department of Justice.”
Among the problem areas with the law which could raise concerns are a reduction in the days of early voting, ending a provision allowing a voter to change their address between counties on Election Day and vote by regular instead of provisional ballot and new rules and fines which would limit the ability of third party groups to conduct independent efforts to register new voters.
"As Project Vote well knows, voter registration drives have been indispensable in expanding the Florida electorate, particularly to low income people and racial minorities," said Estelle Rogers, Director of Advocacy for Project Vote which joined the ACLU in bringing the suit. "HB 1355, with its onerous rules and stiff penalties, makes it too risky for most groups--like civic organizations and church groups--to run a drive in Florida, and thousands of eligible voters will be left out as a result."
Rogers added, “It’s bad enough that Florida's legislature passed this bill and the Governor signed it. Now they want to enforce it even before it can legally go into effect. Project Vote believes that the preclearance process must be allowed to work as the law requires, and we are suing to make sure this happens.”
Today’s federal suit was filed in the Southern District of Florida in Miami and seeks review by a three judge panel.
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Editor’s Note: A copy of suit filed today: http://www.aclufl.org/pdfs/2011-06-ACLUElectionComplaint.pdf