June 8, 2012

Florida Attempt to Suppress the Vote: Unnecessary, Unjustified, ACS Issue Brief Says

ACS Issue Brief, Brennan Center, Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, H.B. 1355, Professor Justin Levitt, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, voter restrictions

by Jeremy Leaming

Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott has attracted plenty of attention for his heavy-handed attempt to purge “noncitizens” from the voter rolls. But that voter purge, which the Department of Justice has ordered the state to halt, is only part of that state’s Republican-led effort to suppress voter turnout.

A relatively new Florida law, H.B. 1355, created onerous restrictions on voter-registration drives, cut early voting opportunities and created new burdensome voter identification requirements. Similar laws have been enacted in other states with Republicans in charge, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. In all those states, Republicans claim widespread voter fraud is the justification for the onerous restrictions.

Civil liberties groups, such as Brennan Center, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), ACLU, however, argue that voter fraud is practically nonexistent, and thus a blatantly lame excuse for the new laws. This is really an effort to suppress the vote of minorities, college students, and the poor.

A new ACS Issue Brief by Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt examines the new Florida law, concluding that “these burdens are not only real and inequitable but also unnecessary, which renders them suspect as a matter of constitutional law and fundamentally flawed as a matter of public policy. Not only do they make it more difficult for eligible Americans to vote, but they do so without any meaningful benefit.”

Levitt’s Issue Brief, “The New Wave of Election Regulation: Burden Without Benefit,” details how Florida’s new law disproportionately burdens minority voters, saying that it is now very likely non-Hispanic white voter turnout will remain much higher than minority voters in 2012. In 2008, Levitt notes that a persistent gap between minority voters and non-Hispanic white voters had substantially narrowed for the first time.

The restrictions on early voting and the new voter identification requirements are likely to sharply restrict minority, low-income and elderly voters. The “available date clearly show that those without government-issued photo ID are more likely to be nonwhite, more likely to either younger voters or seniors, and more likely to be from low-income households, and more likely to have less formal education,” Levitt states.

Regarding voter fraud, Levitt says the evidence is remarkably weak. “Americans are struck and killed by lightning more often. And every year, there are far more reports of UFO sightings,” he writes.

A federal judge has blocked a provision of the law placing outlandish restrictions on voter-drives. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle said the provision hampering voter registration drives undermines democracy. The League of Women Voters of Florida was among the groups, represented by the Brennan Center and the ACLU of Florida, to challenge that provision. Earlier this week, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote announced they would resume voter registration.

Brennan Center lawyer Lee Rowland said that Hinkle recognized that voter registration drives are “constitutionally protected activity that promotes democracy.”

The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal Hinkle’s ruling. Given Gov. Scott’s desire to push the voter purge, it appears likely he’ll fight for the voter suppression law as well.

But as Levitt notes in his Issue Brief the most disturbing aspect of the Florida voter restriction law is how unnecessary and unjustified it is.  

Gov. Scott and his Republican allies see it another way. They have an agenda to advance, and it’s one that is all about protecting or coddling the nation’s super wealthy.