In advance of the 2008 presidential election, Rock the Vote and other organizations helped to register hundreds of thousands of new voters. In Florida alone, Rock the Vote helped 139,551 people register to vote, most of them college-age voters. But new voting laws passed last year in Florida have made it harder for groups like Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters to hold registration drives -- so difficult in fact that many, including Rock the Vote, have had to stop their work altogether.
These groups are not sitting idly on the sidelines, however. In December, Rock the Vote and other civic organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the Florida laws. Yesterday, a federal judge listened to arguments during a preliminary hearing and promised a speedy decision.
"Now we wait," said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. Smith said the new laws have "dealt a serious blow to civic engagement."
"The decision to stop our operation is not one that we took lightly," Smith said. "It's our mission to do this work. If we could find any way to work under the current law, of course we would have done that ... We are anxious to get back to work."
The laws, the organization said, include burdensome administrative requirements, onerously tight deadlines and heavy penalties "for even the slightest delay or mistake."
Every individual who helps people register to vote must be certified by the state and is required to submit each completed voter registration form within 48 hours, as opposed to the 10 days previously allowed. The risks under the new laws include fines and criminal charges.
The result, Rock the Vote contends, amounts to "a mountain of red tape with the cumulative effect of depressing, and in some cases preventing, community-based voter registration drives." Smith said the impact could be doubly troublesome for black and Latino youth, a huge population in Florida that turned out in record numbers during the 2008 elections.
"At some point you just feel like you are buried, a death by a million cuts. If your parents don't have a history of participating, they haven't voted, then you're likely not learning how to navigate the process," Smith said. "Then you go to college, or maybe you get a job, and you're trying to support your family, and the group that might reach out to you and say, 'You do need to register, here's how it works' -- those groups are now stopping their operations."
The legislation in Florida is part of a wave of new laws passed by Republican-led legislatures across the country last year, some that require state-issued photo identification or place limits on early voting. Democrats and voter-registration groups claim these voting laws are part of a broader effort by Republicans to suppress the black, minority and elderly voting blocs, which are all expected to be key to President Barack Obama's bid for reelection in 2012. Those groups disproportionately lack such identification.
In Florida, one new law has eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. More than 32 percent of those who voted early on that last Sunday before Election Day in 2008 were African American, and nearly 24 percent were Latino. Moreover, according to a report released by the Florida State Senate, 52 percent of people who voted early in the 2008 election were registered Democrats.
The Department of Justice has blocked new voting laws in South Carolina and is in the process of reviewing similar legislation in Texas, both of which states must have voting laws cleared by the department under sections of the Voting Rights Act, due to their history of voter suppression and segregation. The new voting laws in Florida are currently in effect in 62 of the state's 67 counties, with the remaining five requiring clearance from the DOJ.
Christopher Rich, 33, a student at Florida A&M University, a historically black university in Tallahassee, said there are dozens of students on campus ready and willing to help register voters, particularly unregistered freshman, but fear of breaking voting laws is holding them back.
"In the past we could register one thousand students, easily, in just over a week," said Rich, who is studying environmental science and pre-law. "But now we've got at least 35 people ready to get people registered, but if you lose a registration or turn them in late, you're facing a felony and could end up losing your right to vote."
It's frustrating, he said. "It's bad when you have the right idea, you want to get people to vote, but if they mess up or you lose one, you're done, everyone's done."
Smith, whose organization is nonpartisan and targets primarily people ages 18 to 29, said that the new legal restrictions have a disparate impact on those most likely to be disenfranchised, including minorities and many first-time voters.
"It is now hard for young people to register and vote, and what was the intention? What problem are we solving? And if the solution is one that makes it harder to register and harder to vote, than maybe we need a new solution," Smith said.
Because Rock the Vote and other groups have temporarily stopped registering voters, major events built around high school and college students have been quashed.
Every March 23, the group has celebrated Democracy Day, on the anniversary of the day that the 26th Amendment was ratified, which lowered the voting age to 18. On that day, high school civics teachers from across the country register eligible students (about 12,000 people turn 18 every single day, according to Smith). This year there will be no celebration in Florida.
"It feels really bad, it really does," Smith said. "It feels wrong."