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Voter registration groups 'cautiously' move ahead after initial court victory over new Florida election law

'It's very important that our community can continue to get registered,' Frederick Vélez III Burgos with the Hispanic Federation says
Posted at 6:06 PM, Jul 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-05 18:06:54-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida groups that work to register minority voters are cautiously moving forward this week after a federal judge on Monday blocked parts of the state's new election law.

Federal Judge Mark Walker didn't hold back in the injunction order calling the new law "Florida's latest assault on the right to vote."

In his 58-page legal filing, Walker paused portions of the law prohibiting non-U.S. citizens from "collecting or handling" voter-registration applications. Also on hold is a provision making it a felony for registration groups to keep a voter's personal info.

An appointee of President Barack Obama, Walker didn't accept the state's reasoning for the changes and found them vague.

"When state government power threatens to spread beyond constitutional bounds and reduce individual rights to ashes, the federal judiciary stands as a firewall," Walker wrote. "The Free State of Florida is simply not free to exceed the bounds of the United States Constitution."

The Hispanic Federation is among the registration groups that brought the legal challenge. Officials like Frederick Vélez III Burgos said the organization is now breathing a little easier with an injunction in place.

"We're moving along cautiously for us," Burgos said. "It's very important that our community can continue to get registered."

Since 2016, the Hispanic Federation reports it has registered more than 160,000 Latino voters, including more than 92,000 Latino voters in Florida. In the Sunshine State, the Federation said, people of color are five times more likely to be registered to vote by minority organizations than white people.

The Federation relies on non-U.S. citizen volunteers and staff to reach and register its voters. Without the injunction, the group could have faced a $50,000 violation per infraction.

"For us, that represents, you know, weeks of work from canvassers," Burgos said. "Or that means that we can potentially lose thousands of voter registrations because we have to pay the fine and not be able to spend money on sending canvasing out to register our community to vote."

The order is far from a final word. It's just a temporary hold until the larger legal dispute is resolved, which plaintiffs' attorneys say they're prepping for.

"Yeah, I mean, we're hopeful," Cesar Ruiz, an attorney with Latino Justice, said. "But we are a team that worries for the best. Nothing is a sure thing, and we know we have to build an incredible record."

The governor's office has yet to comment on the injunction. But, as the GOP-controlled Legislature approved the new law in April, Republicans told us its goal was further bolstering election integrity.

"This is a bill that's about efficiency," state Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, who shepherded the policy in the state House said. "It's about protecting the Florida voter and making sure that we continue to have successful elections."

The state is expected to appeal, and legal experts tell us if that happens, the higher circuit court could quickly reverse things. That would put plaintiffs back at square one.

"I think there's definitely a real probability that it goes up on appeal quickly, and the appellate court reverses," William Cooper, an attorney, author and legal expert said. "I don't think that's the most likely scenario, but it's certainly a real one."

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has previously reversed some of Walker's rulings on Florida election law. Among the most recent is a lawsuit challenging Florida's new rules for ballot drop boxes. The higher court sided with the governor in a split 2-1 decision.