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The unconstitutional burden of voter registration deadlines

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Floridians now have an extra week to register to vote. The State of Florida, according to a federal judge, has set up “unconstitutional” firm deadlines for voter registration, which must be remedied.

The offending statute is 97.055 Florida Statutes that says voter registration “must be closed on the 29th day before each election and must remain closed until after that election.” (emphasis added)

In this matter, the 29th day was Oct. 11. In a shrewd move, the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) sought an injunction to suspend the provisions of Florida law due to violations of the federal “Voting Rights Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

As most anyone paying the slightest bit of attention now knows, the FDP prevailed. The defendants, Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner, did not contest the lawsuit.

Scott played it by the letter of the law and refused to extend the deadline, prompting the lawsuit. Even in ruling Florida law erects “unconstitutional obstacles” to voting, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker opined “it appears Defendant Scott lacked the authority to extend the deadline.”

In other words, despite having two years to register, the Florida Legislature created unnecessary barriers to voting by having firm deadlines. Walker pointed out some states allow registration to take place on Election Day.

Walker put forth a confusing statement on page 11 of his order. He states that “In no way, can Defendants argue that there is some sort of limitation that requires them to burden the constitutional rights of aspiring voters.”

Did he not say within the same order that Scott “lacked authority to extend the deadline?” Detzner is an appointee of Scott, meaning he would have even less authority.

Had the FDP included the Florida Legislature as defendants, Walker’s statement would make more sense.

The purpose here is not to criticize Walker. Indeed, last year I praised this Barack Obama appointee’s restraint and deference to the Legislature in a case involving the Florida Education Association and teacher evaluations.

It is at this point that everyone should pause to remember those who have lost homes, livelihoods, perhaps even a loved one to Hurricane Matthew. To some of those, getting their lives back together is their highest priority right now. Others genuinely want to cast a ballot.

Matthew notwithstanding, the letter of the law reflects the peril of waiting too long to register. The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in good faith to help maintain some order, not keep anyone from voting.

To be fair, there were some silly steps taken in the past such as limiting the mechanism for early voting.

Judge Walker’s passion for going the extra mile for potential voters is noteworthy, but all too often the passion of judges far exceeds that of such “voters” themselves. There are those of us who believe judges should give due deference to state laws passed in good faith.

But thanks to Judge Walker, there is another week to register voters. Republicans have the same opportunity to add supporters as do Democrats.

That being said, voter registration should have ended on Oct. 11 as the duly-enacted law stipulated. Natural disaster clauses could have been implemented for future elections.

Now that all of this has been settled for this year, it is time to get back to attack ads and poll tracking.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at [email protected]

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