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Civil rights groups testify Florida’s controversial voting law suppresses voter registration efforts

TALLAHASSEE — Voting and civil rights groups argued on Monday during the first day of a highly anticipated federal trial that Florida’s controversial new voting law has had a chilling effect on efforts to register voters in the battleground state.

The case centers a Florida law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the Legislature in 2021 that imposed additional restrictions on mail-in ballots and drop boxes and outside voting registration groups. Several civil rights and voting rights groups last year filed legal challenges to the measure, claiming that the new law discriminates against minorities, people with disabilities and older voters.

The trial — being held remotely via Zoom instead of in a Tallahassee court room — comes at a critical time when legislative and political battles over voting rights and laws have escalated in the wake of President Joe Biden’s 2020 win over Donald Trump. Republican-controlled Legislatures across the country passed laws aimed restricting mail-in ballots and voting amid Trump’s false allegations about widespread voter fraud. Democrats in Congress and Biden have sharply criticized the effort, but a congressional attempt to blunt the state laws collapsed earlier this month.

Officials who work for some of the groups suing the state testified Monday that the new restrictions were dissuading people from registering to vote. They were sharply critical of a new requirement that potential voters must be told by third-party groups that there’s a chance their voter registration application may not be delivered within a newly required 14-day deadline. But the groups themselves are subject to fines if they fail to meet that deadline.

“It’s confusing,” said Rosemary McCoy, president of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, an organization based in Duval County. “Why are we telling the public something that is not true?”

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the disclaimer requirement was eroding trust between potential voters and the organization. Scoon talked about how they have had volunteers stop helping with voter registration duties because of their frustration with the new requirements.

“It’s very harmful for us to have to give those kind of warnings,” Scoon said.

But a lawyer representing Secretary of State Laurel Lee pointed out that one of the groups suing — Poder Latinx — turned in more than 50 voter registrations late before the new law passed.

In the next two weeks, university professors, state and local election officials and even Democratic legislators are expected to testify about the controversial new law.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, an appointee of former President Barack Obama who is presiding over the trial, has been sharply critical of Florida election laws in the past. If Walker rules against the state, it would be anticipated that Florida would appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. That appeals court upheld a controversial measure passed in 2019 that placed restrictions on felons seeking voting rights.

The law is being defended by lawyers for the state as well as by national Republican groups who intervened in the lawsuit. Their strategy is to contend the new restrictions are needed to battle against potential voter fraud, even though state legislators did not cite any examples of widespread fraud when they first passed the law in 2021.

Emails and text messages obtained by POLITICO last summer showed that the law was drafted with the help of the Republican Party of Florida’s top lawyer — and that a crackdown on mail-in ballot requests was seen as a way for the GOP to erase the edge Democrats had in 2020.

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