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Florida Voting Laws Challenged By Justice Department

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U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, shown here addressing a crowd during a rally in Columbia, S.C., recently came out in opposition to new voting laws in Florida that restricts voter registration drives and limits early voting.
U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, shown here addressing a crowd during a rally in Columbia, S.C., recently came out in opposition to new voting laws in Florida that restricts voter registration drives and limits early voting.

According to reports, the Department of Justice filed court papers late on Friday requesting a trial for new voting laws in Florida, some of which limit early voting and restrict the registration of new voters -- a move that could disrupt the state's primary election schedule.

"As to the third-party voter registration and early voting changes enacted ... respectively, the United States' position is that the State has not met its burden, on behalf of its covered counties, that the two sets of proposed voting changes are entitled to preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act," the DOJ wrote in a court filing, according to Talking Points Memo.

Florida is one of more than a dozen states that have passed recent legislation that requires voters to show state-issued photo identification at the polls, places restrictions on third-party voter registration groups (such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters) or limits early voting.

Opponents to the new regulations in Florida say they impose burdensome administrative requirements, onerously tight deadlines and heavy penalties for mishandling or not turning in voter registration forms on time. Individuals who help people register to vote must be certified by the state and must 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 Florida laws have also drawn the ire of labor and minority groups that say the laws are an assault on black and Latino voters. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, many churches held so-called Souls to the Polls campaigns, in which ministers caravanned with congregants to polling places on the Sunday before Election Day. But under the new laws, early voting on that Sunday has been eliminated.

Democrats and many voting rights groups claim the crush of new voting laws across the country, passed primarily by Republican-led legislatures, are designed to chip away at key Democratic voting blocs, including blacks, Latinos and the elderly.

The DOJ has already blocked new voting laws in South Carolina and is reviewing similar legislation passed in Texas. Under sections of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, 16 states and various counties with a history of voter suppression must have new voting laws cleared by the department. In Florida, five of the state's 67 counties fall under such rules.

According to Project Vote, a voting rights group, minorities in Florida were almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to register to vote through voter registration drives. Across the country and in states like Florida with large populations of blacks and Latinos, those groups came out en masse to vote in 2008.

But the new laws could slow that momentum, said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote.

"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 told HuffPost Black Voices, referring to her frustrations over the way the new laws impede the group's ability to register voters, particularly those least likely to have participated in the political process. "It has sent a real chill and has had a [dispiriting] impact on civic engagement in the state."

Because of the new restrictions on groups that organize voter registration drives, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters have suspended their operations in Florida.

Late last week, a federal judge heard arguments during a preliminary hearing for a lawsuit, brought against the state by Rock the Vote and other civic organizations, that claims the new voting laws intentionally disenfranchise voters. The judge in the case promised a speedy decision.

Florida officials also filed court papers late on Friday, strongly opposing a trial and pointed out that the federal court hearing the case in Washington, D.C., wanted sufficient time to issue a decision before the primaries, according to the Associated Press.

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