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Florida elections draw criticism

4:15 PM, Sep 17, 2007   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- A coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit against Florida on Monday, alleging the state's new registration laws are blocking tens of thousands of legitimate would-be voters.

The law in question requires county election supervisors to check computer systems for a voter's driver license or Social Security number against that on the registration card. Any mismatch, and the registration is rejected and must be processed by hand.

"Any number of things can go wrong in that process, and the fact that they do is why we're in court," said Justin Levitt, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the organizations filing the case.

He said Florida's Department of State released files showing some 20,000 voter registration cards in 2006 were rejected because of the data matching law. The lawsuit filed Monday at U.S. District Court in Tallahassee includes a statement from a California election supervisor claiming a similar law in that state resulted in rejection rates as high as 44 percent.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a former election supervisor from Pasco County, on Monday issued a short statement pledging his best effort to ensure eligible voters are not turned away from the polls.

"While it is not my policy to comment on pending litigation, I will reiterate that it is the intention of the Department of State to make sure that every eligible voter in the state of Florida has the means and the opportunity to register to vote and to cast a ballot," Browning said.

He said Florida's registration matching law is meant to fill new federal verification requirements, and is "supported" by the Department of Justice.

Because of history of voter discrimination in some counties, that federal agency already is reviewing Florida's amended registration laws. Through that process, the Brennan Center along with other groups last week challenged state rules clamping down on voter registration drives by independent groups such as the League of Women Voters.

The organizations claim the state's stiff time requirements and heavy penalties have a "chilling" effect on such efforts to register minorities and other disenfranchised Floridians.

The Brennan Center, the Florida branch of the NAACP, and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition chose to go to court in hope of resolving the registration matching issue before the encroaching registration deadlines for Florida's earlier presidential primaries.

"Given the way that registration picks up heavily in an election year, we really fear it's going to pick up in 2008. As forms flood in before the deadline, there will be less time to deal with them," Levitt said.

Paige St. John, Florida Capital Bureau

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