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Florida appeals decision to block laws restricting voter-registration groups

Entrance to the voting precinct at the Lantana Road Branch Library in Lake Worth Beach.
Wikine Brutus
Entrance to the voting precinct at the Lantana Road Branch Library in Lake Worth Beach.

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and Attorney General Ashley Moody this week appealed a federal judge’s decision blocking part of a 2023 Florida elections law that placed new restrictions on voter-registration groups.

As is common, a notice of appeal filed Monday did not detail arguments that lawyers for Byrd and Moody will make at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But they are challenging a final judgment issued May 15 by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker involving part of the law that would prevent non-U.S. citizens from “collecting or handling” voter-registration applications. In issuing a permanent injunction, Walker said that part of the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

READ MORE: Voter registration groups in Florida have scaled down their operations after new restrictions

The groups Hispanic Federation and Poder Latinx and individual plaintiffs filed the challenge in May 2023 after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican–controlled Legislature approved the restrictions.

“Here plaintiffs have suffered — and continue to suffer — irreparable injuries,” Walker wrote in explaining the injunction. “Indeed, the individual members in this case have been unconstitutionally discriminated against based on their non-citizenship status. This discrimination has prevented plaintiffs from registering new voters — a lost opportunity that cannot be remedied with monetary damages.”

The state also is appealing a July 2023 ruling by Walker that placed a preliminary injunction on the part of the law related to non-citizens and another part that would make it a felony for voter-registration group workers to keep personal information of voters. A panel of the appeals court heard arguments in January but has not issued an opinion.

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers in recent years have made a series of controversial changes to elections laws. They have argued, in part, that the changes are needed to prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity of elections.

But opponents have contended, for example, that what are known as “third-party voter registration organizations” play an important role in registering Black and Hispanic voters. They say placing restrictions on the groups could make it harder to register voters.

Walker on March 1 granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the part of the law dealing with non-citizens, barring Byrd from enforcing that part of the law. But Walker left unresolved issues related to Moody’s power to enforce the law.

The May 15 decision said the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue Moody and barred enforcement of the law. Walker wrote that an “injunction prohibiting the attorney general from exercising this enforcement authority would effectively redress plaintiffs’ injuries as it would remove the very real threat of a civil enforcement action.”
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