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Election Day in Florida may look familiar

Eight years after the debacle of “hanging chads,” Florida once again seems to be courting electoral trouble. A handful of laws have been passed, with state officials saying they bring order to a chaotic system and critics saying they discourage minorities from voting.
Leon Mitchell, left, helps Diana Joseph fill out a voter registration form at the Government Center in Miami, Fla., on April 15. Florida is considered one of the toughest states to vote in; volunteer groups there can be fined if voter registration forms are missing information.Eric Thayer / The New York Times / Redux Pictures
/ Source: The New York Times

The League of Women Voters in Florida and its 27 local groups have helped thousands of residents register to vote over the years.

But just over a week ago, the organization’s leaders said they would have to stop their current drive because the state’s top election official planned to enforce strict deadlines and fines of up to $1,000 for groups that lose voter registration forms or turn them in late.

“We’re an all-volunteer organization,” said Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, president of the League of Women Voters in Florida, which plans to sue. “It’s a matter of being able to protect the leagues from liability.”

Eight years after the debacle of “hanging chads,” Florida once again seems to be courting electoral trouble. A handful of laws have been passed since the 2000 presidential recount, with state officials saying they bring order to a chaotic system.

“Some say we err on the side of caution,” said Joe Pickens, a Republican from Palatka who served on the Florida House’s Ethics and Elections Committee in 2005 and 2006. “I would say that’s the place we should be.”

But Election Day may end up looking oddly familiar. According to independent elections experts at Pew’s and other organizations, it is now harder to vote here than in nearly every other state in the nation. Some critics predict that tens of thousands of potential voters will be kept off the rolls — many of them poor, black or Hispanic.

In many ways, the battle over the laws reflects the larger national debate over how to overhaul the election system after the 2000 recount. Congress tried to institute a uniform guide for voter registration, but the compromise legislation left many details to the states, and partisanship arose in the void. Republicans typically demanded high standards of accuracy to eliminate voter fraud, while Democrats focused on making voting as easy as possible.

Many states decided that disputes would be worked out case by case, without written rules. But more ambitious states, including Florida, responded with new policies or laws. By 2006, for example, at least 11 states had “no match, no vote” provisions, rejecting potential voters whose Social Security numbers or driver’s license numbers did not match state databases.

Civil rights groups challenged much of the new legislation in court, and they often won. But in Florida, many of the cases remain unresolved.

‘No match, no vote’
Three laws in particular are at issue, including a “no match, no vote” measure; the provision managing voter registration drives conducted by third parties, like the League of Women Voters; and a law that would keep a voter from correcting mistakes or omissions on a registration form in the final month before an election and would bar that person from having his or her vote counted.

Two recent federal rulings have gone in the state’s favor.

On March 25, a Federal District Court in Miami rejected a challenge to the provision on corrections and omissions.

An oversight can be as simple as failing to check what many Florida residents call the “crazy box.” It asks people to affirm: “I have not been adjudicated mentally incapacitated with respect to voting or, if I have, my competency has been restored.”

So far, about 3 percent of voter registrations collected by the Florida chapter of Acorn, a national organizing group, have lacked the required checkmarks.

In the second decision, on April 3, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, sent a case challenging the “no match, no vote” law back to a Federal District Court, reversing an earlier injunction without ruling whether the law was unconstitutional.

Other states, meanwhile, have been moving in the opposite direction. Now, 33 states allow voters to amend forms after their registration deadlines. In 2006, a judge in Washington State struck down a “no match, no vote” law, and at least six other states have abandoned similar provisions.

Fines on volunteers draw fire
Election lawyers say Florida’s Republican-controlled government has introduced more restrictions on the voting process than other states since 2000 and has fought harder to keep them.

Critics say state officials are subtly trying to block new voters, many of whom tend to vote for Democrats, from participating.

“It’s really about politicians trying to game the system,” said Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, a voting rights organization based in Arkansas. “They’ve done that by adding all these bureaucratic obstacles to voting, and then when people can’t jump over them, they blame the voter.”

Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican, sidestepped specific questions about the state’s approach.

“We want to have as many people vote as want to vote that are legally registered to vote,” Mr. Crist said. He also offered to “do some campaigning to encourage people to register to vote.”

Some volunteers actually registering voters are not pleased. The Florida statute governing such groups is somewhat unusual. Besides Florida, only New Mexico assesses fines on them. The law is also a second try.

The first effort, in 2006, called for fines of up to $5,000 per form, but it was struck down in federal court after the League of Women Voters filed suit.

The state appealed but in the meantime passed an amended law, cutting the fines but keeping some original elements in place. A “standstill agreement” between the state and the plaintiffs kept the new law from being enforced, until Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning gave notice of his plans in court documents in late March. In a statement, his office said it was obligated to enforce the new law.

His office said it had not started assessing penalties. It has also acknowledged that the law is vague on whether the cap of $1,000 would apply to an entire organization, a chapter or individual volunteers.

Ms. Wheatley-Giliotti of the League of Women Voters said her group’s roughly 3,000 members could not risk paying the fines. The organization stopped helping voters register for the first time in 2006, before a federal judge struck down the original law that August.

Now, she said, the group must stop again because some local leagues have a budget of only $1,000.

Ms. Wheatley-Giliotti said: “I just believe it’s making it much more difficult for many sectors of the population to register. It’s groups like the League of Women Voters that take extra steps so that seniors, the poor, the underrepresented have an opportunity to register to vote conveniently.”

Christine Jordan Sexton contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla.

This article, , originally appeared in The New York Times.