In light rain outside a south Orlando pizza shop last week, Yohan Fonseca worked the trenches in one of Florida’s most contentious political battlefields. He was registering voters. “I love this work,” Fonseca, said after convincing Ramon Morales, 26, of Orlando, to fill out a registration form. “It’s really good to help the community. We need to vote.” Fonseca, 22, of Davenport, is a paid organizer for the non-profit Hispanic group National Council of La Raza. He and others are going where some long-time voter registration organizations say they are afraid to go: anywhere in Florida. Since passage last year of a new Republican-sponsored election-law rewrite, fierce debate has raged over whether new rules make it tougher for people to register and vote this election year. Among other changes, new law requires groups and individuals to turn in voter forms within 48 hours – they previously had 10 days – or face fines of $50 per late application, up to a maximum of $1,000 per organization per year.
The debate has a partisan tone. Republicans say the changes, which include other new regulations such as using tracking numbers to tie voter applications to the organizations responsible for generating them, are reasonable attempts to curb fraud. Democrats call them “voter suppression,” contending they are intended to curb registration and voting, especially by traditionally Democratic minority, disabled and poor residents.
The changes are also opposed by several nonprofit groups that conduct high-profile voter-registration drives. The League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and others sued in federal court in Tallahassee to overturn the new law, which took effect last July 1; a ruling is expected soon. Meanwhile, they halted their registration drives. “We’ve made such important and remarkable progress since the year 2000 which helped restore voter confidence,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “So to see the Legislature take these backward, regressive steps … is appalling.”