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Mar 5 / Estelle Rogers

Justice Dept. Opposes Preclearance of Florida Registration Drive Restrictions

Florida’s HB 1355, the notorious package of voting changes enacted last year, is being challenged on a number of fronts, and it’s now facing one of its biggest challenges yet.  The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has just aligned itself on the side of the voting rights groups as to some of the most regressive provisions of HB1355, the new rules governing community-based voter registration drives. In a court filing last Friday, DOJ stated for the first time that these rules should not be precleared under the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Five counties in Florida are required under the VRA to obtain “preclearance” of any voting changes by demonstrating that they do not deny or abridge the voting rights of racial minorities in those counties. Preclearance is usually sought by submitting documents to the Department of Justice. But in an unusual move, after Florida had submitted all of the changes in HB 1355 to DOJ last spring, the state then withdrew four of them and filed them instead as a lawsuit against DOJ in the federal district court in Washington, DC.

On Friday, all of the parties to the suit—the state of Florida, DOJ, and numerous “Defendant-Intervenors” (including Project Vote and Voting for America, a number of other voting rights groups, and several individuals)—filed a joint status report with the court laying out their respective positions on the voting changes in the case. And on the changes to the rules on voter registration drives, the DOJ position is that they shouldn’t be precleared. We agree.

The Florida law discriminates against the very populations that benefit most from community-based voter registration drives. The 2010 Current Population Survey indicates that minority citizens in Florida were approximately twice as likely to register to vote through drives as were white voters: 16.2% of African Americans and 15.5% of Hispanics, as opposed to 8.6% of whites. The data from both the 2004 and 2008 election cycles indicate similar patterns: African-American and Hispanic citizens are about twice as likely to register to vote through drives as white voters.

Florida is not alone in tying the hands of community groups helping voters to register: we have been watching with alarm as numerous states consider copycat bills. We hope DOJ’s position on the Florida law will make these state legislators think twice about passing such regressive legislation that serves no purpose except to make it harder for hard-to-reach populations to register.

Voter registration is the gateway to the democratic process.  Rather than putting roadblocks in the way of civic participation, legislators should be making registration simpler and more accessible.

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