Voting-rights groups that virtually stopped registering voters in Florida for a year as they challenged the state’s new restrictions on elections now are scrambling to get people there registered for the Nov. 6 election.
The effort in Florida — a large, politically divided state that is crucial in the nationwide race between Democratic US President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney — comes two weeks after a federal judge rejected strict limits on voter-registration drives that have led to a big drop in Floridians signing up to vote.
The Florida law was so limiting that groups such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which have helped to register millions of voters in the last two presidential elections, essentially halted their registration drives in the state.
Now, with the restrictions lifted and Florida’s Oct. 9 deadline for registering to vote in the November election looming, such groups are fanning out across the state to find new voters.
Massive voter drives across the country in 2008 helped put millions of people aged 18 to 29 on voting rolls. That age group — which makes up roughly one-quarter of the US electorate — voted two-to-one for Obama then, helping to propel him to victory over then-Republican challenger, Senator John McCain.
This year, campaigns and civic groups have faced challenges in signing up voters because of laws passed largely by Republicans who took control of legislatures in 20 states after the 2010 elections.
Besides limits on voter registration, the laws have also included requirements that voters produce a photo ID and limits on early-voting periods aimed at helping working-class people cast ballots if they cannot get to the polls on Election Day.
Dozens of legal battles are being waged over such voting laws in courts, and judges have tossed out a few — including registration limits in Florida and a photo ID requirement for voters in Wisconsin, another state that could be key in deciding the race for the White House.
Republicans say the laws are aimed at preventing voter fraud; Democrats and other critics say they are designed to reduce voter turnout among groups that typically back Democrats.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen this wave of tremendously creative and tremendously destructive laws ... that make it harder for people to vote,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school, said on MSNBC.
The law required the groups to turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours after applicants completed them — a tough deadline to meet for groups involved in large registration efforts. Groups missing the deadline faced fines of US$1,000 a day.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing the state from enforcing the law. However, because the law was in place for about a year, its impact was stark, especially among Democrats.
The Florida Times Union has said 11,365 people registered as Democratic voters in the 13 months that ended at the end of August, compared with an average of 209,425 for the same periods before the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.
Meanwhile, 128,039 Republicans have registered in the state over the past 13 months, up from an average of 103,555 in the same period in 2004 and 2008, the newspaper said.
Democrats tend to focus much more heavily than Republicans on recruiting new voters, and groups such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote aim at low-income and minority citizens who may not know how to register or young people who have never voted.