Voter registration groups back out in Palm Beach County
June 18th, 2012
By Lona O’Connor
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
LAKE WORTH — It’s a balmy evening on Lake Avenue when Daily Garcia and Melissa Williams, fresh-faced and optimistic, hit the street in search of voters to register. They are sworn-in volunteers for a third-party voter registration organization, the Palm Beach County Young Democrats, and are required to follow a set of rules, made stricter by a 2011 state law that includes hefty fines for mistakes.
The law has been challenged by a number of groups as “voter suppression,” while Gov. Rick Scott defends it as a way to avoid fraudulent registrations.
A U.S. District judge recently set aside some of the rules, including tight deadlines for filing the new voter registrations and harsh fines for breaking the rules.
Until the judge’s ruling, volunteers had to sign a form swearing all the information was accurate. They could face felony charges, even if they didn’t know the information was wrong. The judge did away with that form, which was considered intimidating to volunteers.
Garcia and Williams were up to date on all the requirements and before leaving they reviewed how to sign, date and number the forms they give out. They may not advocate for a candidate or a political party, so their name tags say only PBCYD.
When, inevitably, a young man at a kava bar asks them, “Do you work for Barack Obama?” they answer no. “We’re registering voters because we want more people in the political conversation,” Williams said.
The women are volunteers for one of about 250 third-party voter registration groups registered with the state and a dozen based in Palm Beach County, including churches, sororities, Republican and Democratic organizations and the tea party.
State records show more than 250 groups, including political parties, are registered as third-party voter registration organizations in Florida, but less than half are registering voters. Most are affiliated with the Republican or Democratic parties.
In recent weeks, third-party registration efforts have come under state and national scrutiny.
After the law was passed in 2011, Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund briefly suspended their volunteer-led programs to avoid the possibility of paying penalties.
Those groups then sued over the restrictions of the law, including a 48-hour deadline for delivering signatures and fines of $50 per application, capped at $1,000 a year, for improperly filled-out voter registration forms.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle blocked those parts of the law, though some groups continue to follow the more restrictive rules to be safe.
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