Voided rule prompts voter-registration rush
TAMPA - With a voter-registration restriction lifted by a judge, those who register and educate voters are back on the streets and at their tables in front of supermarkets — and even in buses and on airplanes — trying to increase turnout at the polls. "We were thrilled to get word that we were back to work in the state," said Chrissie Faessen, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote, the Washington, D.C.-based youth engagement group that recently made a swing through Florida. "There are some new logistical things we need to do, but we're thrilled to be back, making up for lost time and registering voters on the ground." Groups such as Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP were shackled by a 2011 law that required third-party voter registration groups to turn in forms within 48 hours or face a $50 fine for every form turned in late, up to $1,000.When the law went into effect last year, the League of Women Voters shut down its voter outreach program altogether. But it, too, is back. "Our goal is to get every eligible voter registered," said Mickey Castor, president of the league's Hillsborough County organization. The group will have a regular spot at the Ybor City Saturday Market. In July, the League registered newcomers at a Hillsborough County Schools' teacher orientation. Federal judge Robert L. Hinkle blocked the 48-hour provision in May, calling it "harsh and impractical." His ruling reinstated the prior 10-day deadline. There are still tighter controls on the voter registration process. "Before, we could just get the forms from the Supervisor of Elections, then we would go wherever we wanted to go and register whoever was there," Castor said. Now, the group is registered with the state, and forms that members use identify the organization. Members who will be registering people take an online course on how to complete the process legally. The local office has more than 20 people who have been through the process, Castor said. Registration is only one aspect of the voting process, said Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP. "We want to do registration, we want to do education, and we want to make sure people get out and vote," Collins said. The NAACP has embraced such Internet-era advances as data mining and online registration, but Collins isn't abandoning the old-school methods of reaching out to voters. "Although we have people to crunch the numbers, we still need to go to them, to have a body out there to touch people in the community," she said. At Rock the Vote, there's another tool to entice potential voters: Music. The organization's 44-foot red, white and blue luxury coach was parked outside the Amphitheater nightclub in Ybor City during the Republican National Convention. On banks of computers aboard the bus, hundreds of young voters registered, while Steve Aoki DJ'd for a sold-out crowd inside the club. "We've been amazed by the amount of excitement young people are showing," Faessen said. Meanwhile, Rock the Vote has partnered with Virgin America to feature a "Scan to Vote" QR code in the airline's seat-back entertainment systems. Scanning the code with a smartphone brings up a mobile app that enables fliers to register to vote. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9. The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office also is getting in on the voter registration action, with personnel making a series of appearances at parks, churches and other sites. Its schedule is at www.votehillsborough.org. The 2011 election law overhaul that handcuffed the voter registration groups was passed along party lines in the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature. Backers said it was necessary to combat voter fraud, but detractors suggested that limiting third-party registration was a strategy to depress Democratic Party numbers since the demographics targeted by the third-party groups typically lean Democratic. There is some evidence this is true. The Florida Times Union in Jacksonville crunched registration figures and found that during the 13 months beginning July 1, in the year before elections in 2004 and 2008, the number of registered Democrats increased by an average of 209,425 voters. From 2011 to this year, with the new restrictions in place, the number was just 11,365. Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said it was "heartening" to learn of the court's decision overturning the restriction on voter registrars, especially because other states have also passed or are considering similar restrictions. "We hope it will be a loud call to other legislatures to heed the importance of voter rights," she said.
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