Voting Rights Advocates Challenge Florida Registration Law in Federal Court
Typos Could Disenfranchise Thousands of Florida Voters if Not Struck Down

By The Brennan Center for Justice
Published September 20th 2007 in The Brennan Center for Justice
FLORIDA – Today voting rights advocates filed suit in a US District Court to strike down a statewide election law that could disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible citizens from registering and voting in the 2008 elections.

The law bars any Florida citizen from registering to vote if the state cannot match or otherwise validate the driver’s license or Social Security number on a registration form, an error-laden practice struck down in 2006 by a federal judge in Washington State. Plaintiffs bringing today’s suit, including the Florida branch of the NAACP and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, contend that this matching law unduly delayed or denied registrations for thousands of Florida voters in 2006, and will jeopardize many more voters in 2008 if not blocked.

Florida and a handful of other states refuse to place eligible citizens on the rolls unless they clear a series of extra bureaucratic hurdles largely dependent on “matching” registration information on a new statewide voter list with information in the state motor vehicle or Social Security systems. Common database errors, however, make “matching” unreliable, jeopardizing the status of up to 30% of new voters. A 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the voting rights groups that brought today’s suit, found that such a procedure misinterpreted the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which told states to create the statewide lists.

Plaintiffs today argued that there are several ways the bureaucratic process, embodied in Florida’s state law (Subsection 6 of Section 97.053), will disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters in the 2008 election cycle, especially in trying to match registration forms with Social Security information. A citizen registering as “Bill” might not “match” if his Social Security number is issued under “William”; a woman’s married name might not match against a database that has her maiden name. Common data entry errors also cause matches to fail. According to court documents in a 2006 Washington State case, in which the Brennan Center challenged a similar state law, one woman was barred from the rolls when her birthday was mistakenly entered into the system as “1976” instead of “1975”.

Plaintiffs and advocates were especially concerned that Florida’s law would affect Latino voters who use maternal and paternal surnames, which may be entered differently in different databases. Gabriel García Márquez, for example, if listed in one system with “Márquez” as a last name and in another system with “García Márquez” as a last name, would be affected by the Florida law. And an eligible voter who happens to swap two digits of her driver’s license number will be blocked at the polls, no matter what kind of other documentation she can show.

“With the elections approaching, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that eligible citizens can register to vote and have it count – but Florida’s draconian registration law won’t give many citizens that chance,” said Adora Obi Nweze, President of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “We are particularly concerned about the impact of this law on African Americans with unique names and spellings. After all that Florida has been through, isn’t it time we got this right?” she said.

“Unless the State of Florida rescinds its no-match, no-vote policies, thousands of Haitian-American voters and other ethnic language minorities in the State stand to be disenfranchised in the upcoming presidential election in 2008, as they were in 2000. The trauma of the 2000 Presidential election is still vivid in the collective memory, and must not be repeated,” said Jean-Robert Lafortune of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition.

Florida’s law is very similar to the one blocked by a federal court in the state of Washington in August 2006, when Judge Ricardo S. Martinez ruled that the state’s matching requirement was an unconstitutional obstacle to voter registration.

Since that ruling, several other states have scrapped “no match, no vote” policies, including California, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Florida is now one of few states left that continues to incorrectly apply the law and disenfranchise voters because of common but meaningless errors.

“This statute poses a particular problem to registration applicants in communities of color. For example, many Latinos and Haitian Americans use two names which may lead to a mismatch,” said Jennifer Maranzano, Advancement Project Staff Attorney.

“Florida’s ‘no match, no vote’ law is a bureaucratic nightmare that will unlawfully deny thousands of Floridians the right to vote in the next Presidential election,” said Justin Levitt, Counsel at the Brennan Center and author of Making the List: Matching and Verification Processes for Voter Registration. “There may still be time to fix the problem before the Presidential primaries – if we act now,” he stated.

“Project Vote and Advancement Project confronted Pennsylvania over similar matching procedures and it agreed to follow the law,” said Brian Mellor, Senior Counsel for Project Vote. “We hope that Florida will do the same.”

The suit was filed by the Florida branch of the NAACP and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition.

The plaintiffs were represented by The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Advancement Project; Project Vote; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; and Greenberg Traurig LLP. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and Advancement Project were co-counsel to the plaintiffs in a separate voter registration suit in August, 2006, League of Women Voters v. Cobb, in which a federal court in Miami blocked enforcement of a Florida state law that would have imposed exorbitant fines on voter registration groups according to a punishing and tiered regime of deadlines and fines for groups engaged in non-partisan voter registration.