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Editorials

Judge stops assault on democracy

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:36 PM

All Floridians, especially Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers, should consider the sensible findings of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who last week threw out part of an overreaching elections law.

The law's intent, to prevent voter fraud, was worthy. But it was so broad and clumsily written that it appeared to be aimed more at discouraging voters than safeguarding the process.

It was challenged by the Florida League of Women Voters, which had suspended its voter-registration drives because of the law's penalties.

The judge ordered a preliminary injunction against a provision that requires third-party groups to submit voter-registration forms within 48 hours or face $1,000 in fines. Previously the law had allowed 10 days.

The restriction appeared aimed at the League of Women Voters, NAACP and other Democrat-leaning groups that traditionally conduct voter-registration drives

But such cavalier treatment of citizens' rights should offend all voters.

Lawmakers rammed through the measure with no evidence of widespread fraud. There were 49 voter-fraud cases in Florida from 2008 to 2011. Undetected fraud no doubt occurs, but elections officials who closely monitor what goes on during elections reported no problems and found existing rules sufficient.

But, characteristically, lawmakers passed unnecessary laws without regard for the local reality.

The 48-hour mandate put far too great a demand on volunteers, whose ability to comply with such a tight deadline is limited. Some voting districts reported a marked decline in voter registration because many groups halted registration efforts.

The judge aptly summarized the impact:

"The short deadline, coupled with substantial penalties for noncompliance, make voter-registration drives a risky business. 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. But if the goal is to further the state's legitimate interests without unduly burdening the rights of voters and voter-registration organizations, 48 hours is a bad choice."

The judge went on to skewer the sloppily written statute, which he says is "virtually unintelligible," particularly offensive for a law that "regulates First Amendment rights and is accompanied by substantial penalties."

Hinkle found the measure so vaguely written that it did not make clear whether the 48-hour period includes the hours the election offices are closed at night.

Another critical lapse: The law makes no provision for organizations that distribute voter-registration applications for individuals to send in the mail. Obviously, no organization can guarantee 48-hour mail delivery.

The judge upheld other parts of the measure but found that the plaintiffs were likely to ultimately prevail in their challenges of some other provisions.

Florida's anti-fraud campaign also took another hit last week when the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the halt of a purge of suspected noncitizens initiated by Scott. The agency found it a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act protecting minorities.

We don't doubt that politics played a part in the action by a Democratic administration. But several supervisors of elections found the state's list of possible noncitizens to be deeply flawed. The list included hundreds of American citizens. It looks to be another case of the state moving rashly without proper regard for citizens' rights.

Florida should vigorously protect the legitimacy of elections and adopt new regulations when necessary.

But Scott's and the Legislature's haphazard efforts went beyond sensible safeguards and needlessly jeopardized Americans' right to vote.

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