Decrease in voter registration drives following enactment of Republican state laws

Poder Latinx canvasser Humberto Orjuela is seen assisting Andres Navarro in registering to vote in a Presidente Supermarket parking lot in Orlando on April 20. The implementation of new restrictions in Florida has posed significant challenges for Poder Latinx and other third-party organizations involved in voter registration efforts.

Humberto Orjuela, a canvasser for Poder Latinx, assists Andres Navarro in registering to vote at a Presidente Supermarket parking lot in Orlando on April 20. The recent implementation of stricter regulations in Florida has presented challenges for Poder Latinx and other third-party organizations engaged in voter registration efforts.

Carolina Wassmer drove a gray SUV around the city, carefully dropping off canvassers from Poder Latinx, a civic engagement group. Despite the muggy weather, the canvassers eagerly stepped out of the vehicle, armed with clipboards and pens, prepared to participate in a time-honored American tradition: conducting voter registration drives.

Poder Latinx’s canvassers are venturing out to assist Latino neighborhoods in enrolling or updating their registrations. However, the efforts of these groups, which primarily target young voters and voters of color, are becoming increasingly challenging in Florida and across the country.

Since the 2020 election, voter registration drives have faced increased scrutiny in at least six states. Legislation cracking down on these drives has been enacted by Republicans in Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, and Tennessee. Many groups consider these laws as a grave threat to their work. As a result, several organizations have made the difficult decision to cease their operations, rather than risking potential financial penalties or imprisonment.

Davis Hammet, a representative from Loud Light in Kansas, expressed his frustration, stating, “It’s been a nightmare in every way.” Following the implementation of a new law in 2021 that criminalizes impersonation of election officials, Hammet’s organization decided to suspend their voter registration initiatives. This decision stems from concerns that individuals engaged in voter registration activities could unknowingly be charged with a felony, resulting in the loss of their own voting rights. Hammet emphasized the potential irony of losing one’s right to vote while trying to help others exercise their democratic rights.

In 2022, state legislators in Florida significantly increased the maximum fine that a voter registration group could face, raising it from $1,000 to $50,000. The following year, they further escalated the penalty to $250,000. Additionally, they implemented restrictions on how and where organizations can submit registration forms, and prohibited non-U.S. citizens and individuals with specific felonies from engaging in this important work.

Florida Representative Rick Roth, a Republican who backed the revisions, emphasized the importance of adhering to these rules. “Everyone needs to make sure they follow the correct procedures. We want to avoid any complications or setbacks,” he stated.

Several Florida groups decided to cease their voter registration drives following the enactment of the 2023 law. According to Cecile Scoon from the League of Women Voters of Florida, “Due to the intimidating provisions within the law, the League has made the difficult decision to no longer accept paper voter registration applications.” Over the years, the League has successfully registered tens of thousands of Floridians. However, the potential fine of $250,000 is significantly higher than their annual budget in recent times.

Scoon admitted that their effectiveness has decreased over time.

According to state data, registrations through drives plummeted by 95% in the months following the implementation of the Florida law in 2023, as compared to the same period four years prior.

Republican lawmakers in Florida argue that the implementation of new restrictions is necessary to address concerns about fraud and maintain trust in elections. However, there have been instances where voter registration groups have failed to meet deadlines for returning applications, resulting in potential voters being unable to participate in upcoming elections. Additionally, in April 2023, six canvassers were arrested for allegedly falsifying 58 voter registration applications in two counties. Despite this, a state investigator in Florida concluded that these individuals were not part of an organized criminal conspiracy to manipulate the election process. Furthermore, there is no evidence suggesting widespread fraud in voter registration drives across the country.

Voter registration is a crucial requirement for Americans to exercise their right to vote, with the exception of North Dakota. However, for many potential voters, the registration process poses a significant obstacle to casting their ballot. Voter registration drives have been instrumental in helping eligible Americans register to vote for more than a century. These drives have been organized at various locations such as parks, churches, grocery stores, campuses, and community events.

Voter registration drives have a rich history that dates back to significant movements like women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. These drives play a crucial role in reaching out to the most challenging-to-reach potential voters in the country. Particularly in states without automatic voter registration, such as the six states with new restrictions, these drives become even more essential.

Advocates argue that without these voter registration efforts, many individuals would be excluded from the electoral process. Census data reveals that Black and Latino voters, as well as naturalized citizens and those who did not graduate from high school, are more inclined to depend on third-party voter registration initiatives.

Legislators in at least seven states have considered bills this year to restrict voter outreach efforts. According to data from the Voting Rights Lab, these proposed measures aim to create obstacles for voter registration drives and impose new criminal penalties. In Indiana, there is even a proposal to outlaw such drives altogether.

Nimrod Chapel Jr. of the Missouri NAACP emphasized that this is a crucial component of a nationwide endeavor.

“The better democracy”

Humberto Orjuela, along with other canvassers for Poder Latinx, collects voter registration forms before venturing out into the Orlando community on April 20.

Humberto Orjuela, along with other canvassers for Poder Latinx, gather voter registration forms before venturing into the vibrant Orlando community on April 20.

On a sweltering Saturday, Humberto Orjuela strolled through the parking lot of Presidente Supermarket #49, located east of downtown Orlando. With his friendly demeanor and gentle voice, Orjuela approached shoppers, engaging them in conversation and offering them the opportunity to register to vote.

Orjuela emphasized the importance of increased voter participation in strengthening democracy. Speaking in Spanish amidst conversations with potential voters, he engages them while they are busy loading their groceries into their cars, ensuring a more relaxed and unhurried atmosphere.

During the lunchtime, he encountered two women who were exiting the store. These women were not registered voters but had the desire to be. Orjuela patiently assisted each sister individually with the application process, guiding them through each section. As Wilmarie Rivera reached the part regarding political parties, she found herself unsure about which one to choose. Her sister then chimed in, asking her preference for a presidential candidate.

With a laugh, she responded, “Ah, Trump!” Orjuela noted that she was a Republican. He assisted Rivera in completing the paperwork, and the two sisters got into their red Dodge Charger and drove away.

Wilmarie Rivera is seen registering to vote with Humberto Orjuela of Poder Latinx outside the Presidente Supermarket.

Wilmarie Rivera signs up to vote alongside Humberto Orjuela of Poder Latinx at the Presidente Supermarket.

According to Wassmer, Poder Latinx’s Florida program director, Orjuela conducts his outreach work in Spanish, which has a significant impact. Wassmer explained that many individuals lack confidence or are unsure about the registration process and its importance. By using their native language, Orjuela effectively connects with people and meets them at their level of understanding.

The Florida Legislature has taken a stance against Orjuela’s voter registration efforts. In 2023, a law known as SB 7050 was passed, prohibiting noncitizens like him from organizing voter registration drives. However, it is worth noting that lawful permanent residents are allowed to handle registration applications as employees of Florida’s state or local election offices. Initially, the implementation of this new restriction had been temporarily halted by a court, allowing Orjuela to carry on with his voter registration activities. Fortunately, on Wednesday, the same court ruled that the state is not permitted to enforce this particular provision.

Before coming to the U.S., Orjuela had a background in civil engineering work in Colombia. Although he cannot vote himself, he dedicates his efforts to the unglamorous and physically demanding task of registering voters in parking lots. To him, a successful day means assisting around 10 Floridians in joining the voter rolls or updating their registrations.

According to Orjuela, he has reservations about Florida’s law, as it appears unjust to him. He believes that if people have the right to work, they should be able to exercise that right without facing numerous limitations.

Legislators made several changes to the voter registration process. They reduced the time frame for groups to submit their applications to elections officials from 14 days to 10. Additionally, they implemented a restriction on individuals with specific felonies, such as elder abuse, sexual offenses, and perjury, from registering voters. Furthermore, they introduced a new requirement for groups to provide a receipt for each application. Lastly, they added a mandate for groups to re-register with the state after every election cycle.

In addition, SB 7050 has made it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to retain the personal information of individuals who register to vote. However, a court has currently blocked this provision. Organizations argue that details such as addresses and phone numbers have been crucial for their voter outreach efforts.

People Power for Florida is an organization that focuses on registering voters in the state. According to Allison Minnerly, a member of the group, the current environment for voter registration has become increasingly tense.

“People Power for Florida is actively engaged in registering voters across the state,” stated Allison Minnerly, a member of the organization. According to her, the current environment surrounding voter registration has become increasingly tense.

The bill effortlessly passed through Florida’s predominantly Republican Legislature in the spring of last year. It received high praise from Maria Matthews, the state’s election director, who compared its potential to that of a teenage cross-country sprinter. Deposition testimony revealed that Matthews and her colleagues at Florida’s Department of State, responsible for overseeing elections, were instrumental in suggesting many of the provisions included in the legislation. Cord Byrd, the agency’s leader, is a former Republican state representative and a trusted ally of Governor Ron DeSantis.

According to Mark Ard, the spokesperson for the Department of State, voter registration groups in Florida are entrusted with the responsibility of submitting voter registration applications to the relevant Supervisors of Elections within a reasonable timeframe. However, it is unfortunate that this does not always happen as expected.

The election crimes unit of the agency has intensified its investigation into voter registration groups in 2023. In its annual report, the unit acknowledged that these groups have been a persistent issue in the state for several years. The report highlighted that the agency has received more than 50 civil complaints from county election officials regarding the late submission of applications by these groups.

According to Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, third-party voter registration groups, also known as 3PVROs, do not have any widespread issues.

According to him, although there are a few individuals who are not performing well in their efforts on the ground, they are a small minority.

Voter registrations way down, fines way up

According to a report by Smith, voter registration drives are a crucial resource for Black and Latino voters, who utilize them more frequently than their white counterparts. The report highlights that in Florida, 12.8% of Black voters have utilized voter registration drives to register or update their registration since 2012.

Latino voters had a voter turnout rate of 10.3%, while white voters only had a turnout rate of 2%.

During the deposition, Matthews, the state elections director, admitted that she was aware of data indicating that voter registration drives had a higher reach among Black and Latino voters.

Republicans dispute the idea that race plays a role in these laws. According to Roth, “This is not singling out any particular group. Our concern lies with the operations of voter registration groups. Personally, I have my own concerns.”

Joe Scott, the supervisor of elections in Broward County in South Florida, dismisses these concerns. According to him, there is a significant portion of the population that heavily depends on these organizations to conduct voter registration drives, which ultimately enables them to register to vote.

According to Scott, a Democrat, Broward County has experienced a significant decline in voter registrations through drives since the implementation of SB 7050. This trend is also observed statewide, with only 3,860 Floridians registering through drives in the first three months of 2024. In comparison, during the same period in the previous presidential election year, a total of 40,963 voters registered through drives.

One of the factors contributing to this significant decrease is the decision of certain organizations to halt their voter registration efforts in response to the implementation of these new laws. Faith in Florida, led by LaVon Bracy, is among those organizations.

Bracy, a dedicated civil rights activist, achieved a significant milestone in 1965 as she became the first Black student to successfully graduate from Gainesville High School. With unwavering commitment, she has taken it upon herself to register numerous voters in Florida, making a profound impact on the community.

“The restrictions are simply unbelievable,” she exclaimed from the Orlando church where she and her husband established their foundation. Bracy made the difficult choice to suspend voter registration drives last year due to the exorbitant fines of up to $250,000 per year that Faith in Florida would have to bear if any mishaps occurred. “It was a crucial decision driven by financial considerations. We had to adapt and change our approach,” she explained.

LaVon Bracy, a civil rights activist, has been involved in various social causes throughout her career. In 2012, she gained recognition for her work with the Faith in Florida group, which aimed to empower marginalized communities. One of their notable initiatives included advocating for voting rights. While Bracy and her organization have made significant strides in increasing civic engagement, they have shifted their focus away from directly registering individuals to vote.

LaVon Bracy, captured in this 2012 photograph, is an esteemed civil rights activist with a rich history of fighting for equal rights. Notably, her organization, Faith in Florida, has shifted its focus from directly registering individuals to vote.

According to documents in the lawsuit, fines imposed on voter registration groups have seen a significant increase in recent years. In 2019, the fines amounted to less than $4,000, but they skyrocketed to over $64,000 last year.

Faith in Florida has taken measures to prevent fines and criminal sanctions by providing QR codes to prospective voters. These codes lead individuals to the state’s registration website, allowing them to register themselves. As a result, the organization is not directly registering people, and its staff cannot submit applications on behalf of voters.

Bracy is concerned that the new laws will result in fewer voters being reached by Faith in Florida, particularly senior citizens who may find it challenging to navigate the state’s online registration system.

According to Bracy, there is a racial motive behind the bills that regulate voter registration drives. He specifically points to the 2018 gubernatorial election, where DeSantis won by a narrow margin against Andrew Gillum, who is Black. Bracy believes that these bills are designed to suppress the votes of Black and brown people. He emphasizes the significance of these rules by stating that if voting wasn’t important, such strict regulations wouldn’t be necessary.

“Making it scary to do this work”

Florida is not the only state facing this issue.

Since the 2020 election, several other states with Republican control have implemented laws that place limitations on voter registration drives. These laws have faced legal challenges and exhibit commonalities among them.

Danielle Lang of the Campaign Legal Center believes that a common thread among the various cases she has worked on is the intimidation factor associated with this line of work. According to Lang, the laws in question include both financial and criminal provisions that contribute to this sense of fear. Lang’s organization has been actively involved in legal challenges in states such as Florida, Montana, and Missouri.

Several states have active cases where laws can be enacted, subsequently halted by courts, and ultimately deemed constitutional. This dynamic legal landscape puts organizations in a difficult position, forcing them to make decisions about voter registration amidst the shifting sands of the law.

Sam Sandmire’s BABE VOTE, an organization dedicated to registering young voters on college campuses, at music festivals, and other locations, is facing challenges as a result of a law enacted in Idaho in 2023.

According to an analysis by Tufts University, youth registration in Idaho has experienced a significant surge in recent years. In fact, between 2018 and 2022, it grew at a faster rate than any other state.

The state Legislature passed a law that laid out the acceptable forms of identification for voters to register and prove residency. These include a deed of trust, credit card statement, or concealed weapons license. However, notably absent from the list is a student ID. Sandmire expressed disappointment, stating that this exclusion has led to the suspension of their voter registration drives.

The lawsuit filed by BABE VOTE described the changes as a deliberate and targeted assault on Idaho’s youngest voters. However, the state Supreme Court dismissed the case in April. It is important to note that a separate case regarding the law is still ongoing in federal court.

Voter registration groups in Missouri and Kansas expressed concern over new laws that could potentially subject them to criminal penalties for their work.

The Kansas law has made it a crime to impersonate an election official, but civic engagement groups have raised concerns about the law’s vague language. As a result, some of these groups have had to suspend their operations. In a recent hearing, an attorney defending the law admitted that it was not well-crafted. Despite the efforts of these groups to clearly identify themselves, they have still been mistaken for government employees. This mistaken identity now carries a hefty penalty of up to $100,000 and 17 months in prison.

Hammet, the president of Loud Light, expressed his concern about the potential consequences of sending young people out and the lasting impact it could have on their lives. He emphasized the severity of the situation, stating that this is not just a misdemeanor, but a felony charge that could potentially ruin their future.

Hammet’s group had organized an event to commemorate the anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. However, he decided to cancel the event once the law was successfully passed.

He expressed disappointment that they were unable to register voters on the day that commemorates the granting of voting rights to young individuals.

The legal challenge is still ongoing, and unfortunately, the process has been drawn out for several years. Hammet expressed his frustration, stating that his organization has been unable to register thousands of voters due to this prolonged situation.

The League of Women Voters of Florida participated in an Earth Day event in Orlando, where they had a table. In a recent development, the group made the decision to halt voter registration activities due to the implementation of restrictive state laws.

The League of Women Voters of Florida set up a table at an Earth Day event in Orlando. Recently, the organization made the decision to discontinue registering voters, citing the presence of restrictive state laws.

In August, there is a scheduled trial challenging Missouri’s law that was passed in 2022. Currently, certain aspects of the law are not in effect due to a preliminary injunction granted by a state judge. The NAACP and other plaintiffs argue that the law’s vague provisions expose them to potential criminal sanctions.

The Missouri NAACP has expressed concern over the law that prohibits payment for voter registration work. According to the organization, this ban extends to travel reimbursement and providing food and drinks for volunteers. Reverend Doctor Linden Bowie Chapel, a member of the Missouri NAACP, described the restrictions as “draconian” and fears that they could hinder their ability to organize voter registration drives during events like back-to-school gatherings and Juneteenth celebrations. He explained that even simple gestures, such as giving volunteers doughnuts or T-shirts, would now be prohibited under the law.

In addition, individuals who solicit over 10 applications are obligated to register to vote with the state, thereby excluding Missourians who are unable to cast ballots due to their felony sentences.

Chapel expressed his frustration with the law, stating that it truly emphasizes the intention of those who enacted it – to limit their ability to register new voters.

The state’s attorneys have denied the allegations made by the NAACP and other groups in court. Andrew Bailey, Missouri’s attorney general, expressed his pride in leading the effort to safeguard the integrity of Missouri’s elections, as he stated to the Center for Public Integrity and NPR.

A law enacted in Montana in 2023 imposed criminal penalties on voters who deliberately maintain their registration in one jurisdiction while registering in another. This provision has raised concerns among organizations conducting registration drives, as they fear that their employees and volunteers may face criminal charges for assisting individuals with their registration. Consequently, these groups have taken legal action, and in late April, a federal judge issued an injunction to prevent the state from enforcing this particular provision at the moment.

Millions of voters register through drives

“People recognized from the start that groups could play a crucial role in assisting individuals to overcome this obstacle,” stated Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky.

Douglas delved into the history of registration drives and discovered that these initiatives have been instrumental in helping millions of voters during each election cycle.

Drives have gained momentum in periods of franchise expansion, fueled by significant movements such as women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. According to the expert, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 further spurred a surge in registration by streamlining the application paperwork.

In 2019, a law was passed in Tennessee that aimed to impose substantial fines and prison sentences. However, this law was ultimately blocked by a federal court.

Charlane Oliver, who played a crucial role in a voter registration campaign in Tennessee, has recently become a state senator.

Charlane Oliver, who is pictured here in 2019, played a crucial role in a voter registration campaign in Tennessee and currently serves as a state senator.

Oliver, a Democrat, won the state Senate election in 2022. In recent times, she has closely observed the introduction of fresh legislation that limits such drives. Many of the provisions bear a resemblance to the laws recently enacted in Florida, which include the need for groups to furnish a receipt, the imposition of fines, and the prohibition of individuals with specific felonies from engaging in this work.

Tennessee Representative Tim Rudd, the sponsor of the bill, stated in a joint statement to Public Integrity and NPR that he took inspiration from Florida. However, he believed that Florida’s fine of $50,000 for individuals involved in voter registration work with certain felonies was excessive. As a result, he proposed a reduced fine of $5,000.

Rudd, a Republican, rebuffed the claim made by Oliver and others that legislation aimed at restricting voter registration drives adversely affects Black voters. He stated that the bill is not about race, but rather about safeguarding the people of Tennessee from voter registration fraud and elder abuse through reasonable and well-defined guidelines and restrictions. According to Rudd, those who oppose this legislation simply do not want to be held accountable. The law was enacted by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee earlier this month.

This year, several states, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, New York, and West Virginia, have contemplated passing legislation to prohibit or limit voter registration drives.

Saumya Sarin, a volunteer with Idaho’s BABE VOTE, expressed her concern about the troubling trend of these bills circulating across the nation.

According to the Voting Rights Lab, there are currently active bills in three of those states that have the potential to become law.

According to Jacqueline De León from the Native American Rights Fund, voter registration drives hold significant importance for various groups beyond Black, Latino, and young adults who encounter voting obstacles. She emphasizes that these drives are particularly crucial for Native Americans, as many of them are never given the opportunity to register to vote.

“Some Americans find it impractical to register online,” said Tennessee’s Oliver, highlighting the lack of broadband access in many rural communities. Oliver questioned how individuals in such areas would be able to register to vote online.

Small changes in voter registration could have a significant impact on the outcome of a closely contested presidential election. Additionally, the composition of the electorate will have implications for the local races that will determine the individuals who hold positions such as governor, mayor, and state supreme court justice in communities nationwide. In Florida, narrow margins could decide the fate of ballot measures relating to marijuana and abortion access.

Voting is a fundamental right that every citizen should exercise. While it is not guaranteed that everyone who registers will actually vote, it is important to note that those who do not register will not be able to vote.

According to Scott, the supervisor of elections for Broward County’s 1.9 million residents, voter registration drives play a crucial role in creating awareness. He explains that these drives set up tables and engage with individuals who may not have been exposed to the idea of registering to vote. They aim to ensure that everyone understands the importance of being registered to vote.

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