USA Today – Florida’s controversial year-old election law has hurt the voter registration efforts of the League of Women Voters of Florida, its president testified in federal court in Tallahassee Monday.
Cecile Scoon was the first witness called in the trial over the law held by teleconference before Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida. The League and several other plaintiffs sued the state, contending the new law is unconstitutional and saying it raises barriers to voting for Blacks and other minorities.
“People are very intimidated by the change in the law. They are afraid they are going to be perceived of doing something wrong,” Scoon said, adding that volunteers are quitting because voter registration has become too stressful.
She also said she didn’t understand why the changes were necessary since the 2020 election had gone smoothly and should be a model for other states to follow. That’s also according to public statements by Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The law has been defended by its Republican supporters as placing guardrails to protect the integrity of the voting process without any intent to suppress the vote.
“The purpose, at least for me, has been to clarify our intent for secure, fair and even handed elections,” bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said last year.
Immediately after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law during a private ceremony broadcast exclusively on FOX News last May, the League filed suit. Other lawsuits followed, which were consolidated into the present trial. The NAACP, Black Voters Matter Fund, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, Disability Rights Florida, and several other organizations also have joined the suit.
The law (SB 90) also restricts the hours drop boxes are open to the same hours as early voting sites, limits where drop boxes can be located, and requires 24/7 in-person monitoring of the drop boxes. Failure to follow the new rules could result in fines of $25,000 for county supervisors of elections.
The Bay County Supervisor of Elections took down a drop box in one Panama City neighborhood rather than be fined, Scoon testified.
The law also adds new identification requirements to request vote-by-mail ballots and requires voters to renew their vote-by-mail request for each regular election, and limits who can deliver a mail-in ballot for another voter.
It also sets stricter requirements for third-party voter registration organizations, including that requests must be promptly delivered within 14 days after completion by the applicant, but not after registration closes for the next election.
And it prohibits any outside organizations from entering the 150-foot buffer zone at polling places to persuade people to vote and doing anything “with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter,” which is a broader definition than soliciting voters.
Scoon and others have interpreted that to mean her organization can’t assist elderly voters waiting in line or have an information table within that 150-foot zone because it could be perceived as attempting to influencing the voter.
“We are absolutely not going to do that anymore (because) the interpretation of that language could be so broad,” Scoon said.
On cross-examination by the state’s lawyers, Scoon admitted that the League’s policy was to stay out of the buffer zone before the statute changed. A lawyer for the state said that shows that the change to the law doesn’t affect the League’s activities.
It would be easy for someone to accuse her volunteers of doing something wrong, she added, and she doesn’t want her volunteers to wind up in a negative or harmful situation.
Scoon said the League has spent a lot of time educating volunteers about the new requirements so that they don’t make any mistakes. One particular requirement of the new law has had a chilling effect on getting folks to register with the nonprofit, nonpartisan voter rights group.
“We have to communicate to the potential voter that … we may not turn in their voter application form in on time, that they can register other ways, do it online, go to the voter registration office, and provide other pathways when talking to them,” Scoon said.
It’s especially galling
since the League hardly ever turns in voter registration forms late, she said: “It’s very rare, not common at all.”
Both she and her colleagues were appalled by the new language requiring such a disclaimer.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We had done all this voter registration that had gone really well, and we had established our brand in many communities as trustworthy.”
Having to read the disclaimer erodes that trust, she said. She recounted a recent experience trying to convince a gentleman to register. He walked out after she read the disclaimer, saying he would do it himself later.
“It doesn’t go along with everything we do and our training, (with) building trust,” Scoon testified. “People were very upset, being forced to say something that is not true and inaccurate and giving a black eye to the League.”
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY Network – Florida.