MTV News takes a closer look at legislation passed last year in the state that has voter-registration groups up in arms.
By Gil Kaufman
TAMPA, Florida — It’s a teenage rite of passage up there with learning to drive and attending prom: your first time voting. But according to some longtime voter-registration organizations, that right could be threatened this year in a number of states due to new laws that make signing up new voters more difficult.
The issue has come into sharp relief this week in Florida, which holds its presidential primary Tuesday. A bill passed last year in the state includes a number of new rules for how civic organizations can register new voters, as well as ones that reduce the number of early voting days from 14 to eight and prohibit early voting on the Sunday before an election.
The part of the new law that has troubled groups such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters the most, though, is the one that forces such third-party organizations to submit voter-registration applications within 48 hours of receiving them, instead of the 10 days as provided by the pervious law. These groups — which are among several who have suspended their voter-registration drives in Florida this year because of a lawsuit over the changes — say the fines and threats of potential civil lawsuits have put a chill on their get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We are outraged at these new laws that will prevent opportunities for youth civic participation,” Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit in early December. Attorneys for the groups claim Florida’s new voter laws violate the U.S. Constitution and federal laws by violating their constitutionally protected rights of speech and association and failing to give individuals and groups fair notice of how to comply with the laws’ “confusing and unclear mandates.” They also argue that the laws breach the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, a federal law designed in part to “encourage community-based voter-registration activity.”
Supporters of the law say it will save money by eliminating extra voting days and is a bulwark against voter fraud, which its supporters argue is a constant threat to the democratic process.
Some Democrats, however, have accused Republicans — Florida is among the half-dozen states with GOP-led legislatures that passed new voting laws last year — of using the provisions to disenfranchise some traditionally key Democratic voting blocs, including racial minorities, the poor, the young and elderly voters.
There were 31 cases of voter fraud referred to Florida authorities between January 2008 and 2011, and only two resulted in arrests out of the 8.1 million votes cast in the 2008 election.
A hearing was held in Tampa, Florida, on Friday, led by U.S. Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Dick Durbin of Illinois, in which the men described the bill as a “voter suppression act” and vowed to have the courts address what Durbin sees as a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
MTV is on the scene in Florida! Check back for up-to-the-minute coverage of the primaries and stick with PowerOf12.org throughout the 2012 presidential election season.