In a federal lawsuit filed in Miami on Thursday against the Florida Secretary of State and Division of Elections, the League's Florida branch acknowledged that it had recently ceased efforts to register voters because of what it calls the law's draconian fines against organizations (other than political parties) for submitting forms late. The League of Women Voters of Florida joined several other pubic interest and labor groups, including the Florida AFL-CIO, in challenging the constitutionality of the law, which went into effect Jan. 1. They are asking the U.S. District Court to immediately suspend the fines which the groups say could bankrupt their voter registration budgets.
As the lawsuit puts it, "the challenged law imposes civil fines of $250 for each voter registration application submitted more than 10 days after it is collected, $500 for each application submitted after any voter registration deadline, and $5,000 for each application [that for whatever reason doesn't end up being] submitted. Plaintiffs are strictly liable for these fines, even if their inability to meet the statutory deadlines results from events beyond their control, such as the destruction of applications in a hurricane."
On March 19 the board of directors for LWV of Florida voted unanimously to suspend voter registration rather than put its volunteers and $80,000 annual budget at risk, says its president, Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti. "I'm angry, okay?" Wheatley-Giliotti says. "This hits at the core of our mission. We were founded to educate voters and get them involved in the political process. I can't do my job, really."
Florida is the only state that levies fines for submitting registration applications late or not at all, says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, who also represents the plaintiffs. And the LWV of Florida claims the impact of the fines could be devastating. "The League of Women Voters' entire annual budget of $80,000 would be decimated if only sixteen voter registration applications collected by its volunteers were lost in a flood, or if its volunteers took 11 days to submit the few hundred applications they often collect during one day's work," according to the lawsuit.
Contacted shortly after the filing in Miami, Susan Smith, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State in Tallahassee said the agency had not yet seen the lawsuit and therefore could not comment. Other voter registration advocates say they also fear that one of the underlying political intents of the law which was passed by the Republican-majority Florida Legislature is to dilute and discourage Democratic voter registration, since groups like the AFL-CIO are thought to register more working-class and minority voters.
Sen. Bill Posey, a Rockledge Republican, argues that hurricanes or other disasters are not the issue; by imposing the fine for failing to submit a voter's application, he maintains, the law discourages people or groups from destroying the registration forms of people with differing political views. (Weiser points out that Florida already had a law on the books to address that problem.) And if a hurricane hits, any fine due to delay or destruction can be appealed, he says. "If a hurricane blew a building away, I can't imagine they're going to get somebody for that," Posey says. "I think common sense would prevail. If there is a nuclear holocaust I think the last thing people are going to be worried about is getting their registrations in on time."
State Rep. Ron Reagan (no relation to the former President), a Sarasota Republican who sponsored the law, says political parties are exempt from the law "because we rarely have a problem with political parties. It didn't matter what side you were on. We were not going to penalize them." But Weiser of the Brennan Center calls that position "discriminatory. The League of Women Voters and AFL-CIO have been forced to shut down their operations. It's not only burdensome but discriminatory. That's problematic and unconstitutional."