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Elections law caused ‘dramatic decrease’ in voter registrations by community groups, official says

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Elections law caused ‘dramatic decrease’ in voter registrations by community groups, official says

Apr 03, 2024 | 3:11 pm ET
By Michael Moline
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Elections law caused ‘dramatic decrease’ in voter registrations by community groups, official says
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Early voting in the state capital on Oct. 24, 2020. Credit: Diane Rado

A Florida elections supervisor testified Wednesday that new restrictions on voter-registration organizations, including vastly increased fines for violations of the law, has produced a “dramatic” decrease in their efforts to sign up new voters.

Under questioning by Renata O’Donnell, an attorney representing the third-party voter-registration groups suing the state over the 2023 crackdown, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley praised the group’s efforts generally. He is the immediate past president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections.

But he said the law is having a “detrimental” effect on the groups, sometimes referred to by the acronym 3PVROs.

Elections law caused ‘dramatic decrease’ in voter registrations by community groups, official says
Mark Earley, supervisor of elections, Leon County. Credit: Leon Supervisor of Elections website

“In fact, you’re already seeing less 3PVRO activity since the passage of this law, right?” O’Donnell asked.

“A dramatic decrease,” Earley said.

“Which means fewer Floridians are being registered to vote, correct?”

“That’s what it looks like to me, yes,” Earley answered.

“And that means 3PVROs are reaching fewer people in the communities they typically reach, right?”

“Yes.”

“Which in your experience are typically people of color, right?”

“Yes.”

The exchange came during Day Three of a trial before Mark Walker, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, seeking an injunction against enforcement of SB 7050, part of a multi-year crackdown by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature on access to the ballot that followed the 2020 presidential election and efforts to discredit the integrity of the election system.

The law says these groups cannot have employees or volunteers who are not citizens of the United States help people register to vote, even if they are legal residents. That same exclusion applies to people who’ve been convicted of felony election and identity theft crimes, making no allowance for people who have won restoration of their civil and voting rights. Violations can bring fines of $50,000 per incident.

Fear of sanctions

Walker in Tallahassee enjoined some aspects of the law in July 2023, but leaders and employees of these groups have already testified that they’ve restricted or stopped registrations for fear of incurring such heavy sanctions.

The lawsuit names Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and each of the state’s 67 county supervisors of elections, including Earley. Still, the groups called him as a defense witness.

Asked O’Donnell whether he has a generally favorable view of these groups, that they help Floridians, include trusted members and neighbors of their communities, reach people that the government can’t, and complement his office’s outreach, Early replied in the affirmative.

Additionally, he sees little benefit from shortening the time required to deliver completed registration forms to election officials from the old 14 days to 10 under the new law.

“In general, I would say that’s correct — there’s not a whole lot of benefit,” Earley said, although he added that a bigger county might find the new deadline of benefit since that might avoid masses of forms arriving just before elections.

He’d still register a voter whose form comes in after the 14 days, as long as it arrives before book closing for an election, he said.

The law increased total fines that can be assessed against an organization from $50,000 to $250,000. Asked whether that would crimp these groups’ activities, Earley answered, “That’s my experience, that it has, yes.” And he communicated that possibility to legislators before they passed the law, he said.

The law also penalizes groups for submitting forms to the wrong county; Earley testified that that hasn’t been a major problem for his office, although he thinks other counties may have had more of a problem with that.

Similarly, Earley said he was unaware of any problems arising from noncitizens registering voters.

Vague definition

The secretary of state’s office has issued a rule stating that “collecting and handling” forms for purposes of the noncitizen ban means “physically exercising custody.” Early acknowledged that might be confusing.

“It could be, yes,” he said. And it could impede third-party voter registration efforts, he added.

The law prohibits retention by the groups of private information about voters lists drivers’ license and social security numbers and signatures but clarifies that the list is not exclusive. That’s vague, O’Donnell suggested, adding that cell numbers and email addresses might also conceivably be considered personal information.

“Correct,” Earley answered. However, “from my perspective, they shouldn’t be keeping that” anyway, he added.

A provision barring the handling of vote-by-mail ballot by anyone outside a voter’s immediate family or guardian might make voting more difficult for the elderly and disabled, Earley said.

In questioning plaintiffs’ witnesses, the state has stressed that the groups typically store unredacted voter registration forms on third-party platforms — the suggestion being that the practice could endanger voter’s privacy.

However, Earley testified that his and other supervisors’ office do the same thing, using a platform called Voter Focus without informing any voters.

Under follow-up questioning by plaintiffs’ attorney Alexandra Copper, Earley testified that members of his staff and volunteers have suffered harassment by election denialists and that personal information the law requires from voter-registration group employees might subject them to similar threats.

“I can’t say that it wouldn’t be a concern,” he said.

Reporting fraud

Attorneys representing the state quizzed Earley about his experience with violations by these groups, including filing of what appeared to be fraudulent registration forms. On occasion, Earley said, he has referred these cases for prosecution.

Some of the problems involved a particular canvasser who Earley believed worked for a number of 3PVROs. One involved a form returned for a woman who had died; Earley’s office sent an updated registration to the woman’s home and her mother reported her death to the office, he said.

Asked whether some factor other than the law might have led them to stop registrations, Early said several representatives of the groups expressly cited the heavy fines when talking to him.

And, wrapping up Earley’s testimony, Copper asked whether the problems he reported were due to a small number of “bad actors.”

“I would say that is true,” Earley answered.