Judge tosses new Florida voter registration law

A federal judge on Monday declared a new Florida voter registration law unconstitutional, ruling that its stiff penalties for violations threaten free speech rights and that political parties were improperly exempted.

The 48-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz means that state authorities cannot enforce the provisions of the law. It took effect Jan. 1 and has been blamed by several labor unions and nonprofit groups for effectively blocking voter registration drives across the state because of the financial risk.

“If third-party voter registration organizations permanently cease their voter registration efforts, Florida citizens will be stripped of an important means and choice of registering to vote and of associating with one another,” Seitz wrote.

The law also “unconstitutionally discriminates” against third-party registration groups because it does not apply to political parties, Seitz added.

The law imposes fines of $250 for each form that is submitted to election officials more than 10 days after it is collected from an individual and can reach $5,000 for each form that is collected but never submitted.

State officials said the decision would be appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“At this point, we respectfully disagree with the ruling and plan to take the issue up on appeal,” said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb, whose office oversees elections.

The measure quietly passed the Legislature in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election that saw national attention focused on Florida as a key battleground state and the registration of more than 1.5 million new voters, nearly twice the number registered in the 2000 election cycle.

“This is a win for democracy and will send a signal to officials in Florida and other states that you cannot erect unreasonable barriers to voter registration,” said Wendy Weiser, co-counsel for the third-party groups and deputy director of the Democracy Program at the New York University law school’s Brennan Center for Justice.

The plaintiffs in the case included the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other groups.

Attorneys for the state had argued that the Legislature was within its powers to single out third-party groups because of evidence of past registration problems.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press