A federal judge Thursday struck down a key part of Florida’s recently revamped election laws, saying the Legislature’s restrictions have made it “risky business” for third-party groups to register new voters. Hours later, the Justice Department ordered Florida’s elections division to halt a systematic effort to find and purge the state’s rolls of noncitizen voters. Florida’s effort appears to violate both the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities, and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act — which governs voter purges — T. Christian Herren Jr., the Justice Department’s lead civil rights lawyer, wrote in a detailed two-page letter sent late Thursday night. State officials said they were reviewing the letter. But they indicated they might fight the Justice Department over its interpretation of federal law and expressed frustration that President Barack Obama’s administration has stonewalled the state’s noncitizen voter hunt for nine months.
Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle told the state it cannot require groups to submit voter registration forms within 48 hours or face $1,000 fines. Nor can the state force those groups to disclose names of volunteers who don’t collect the forms, Hinkle ruled. “The short deadline, coupled with substantial penalties for noncompliance, make voter registration drives a risky business,” Hinkle wrote. “If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.” Hinkle said voter registration activity is protected speech under the First Amendment. His injunction means that groups will have 10 days to submit voter forms, as they did before the law was changed.