Election Litigation Update: Key Developments in TN, FL Cases

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Federal courts in Tennessee and Florida have issued rulings in ongoing disputes regarding voter registration in their respective states – both of which could be significant in 2020 and beyond.

In Tennessee, a federal judge issued an injunction and blocked a new voter registration law after refusing to dismiss the challenge earlier this week. The Tennessean has more:

A series of new restrictions for Tennessee voter registration groups won’t take effect Oct. 1 after a federal judge blocked the new law in an injunction Thursday. 

The ruling means a far-reaching law that threatens civil and criminal charges against voter registration groups won’t go into effect until the court decides lawsuits filed against Secretary of State Tre Hargett, state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins and members of the State Elections Commission.

Under the new law, the state can fine groups that submit 100 or more voter registration forms lacking a complete name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility and signature. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. The bill also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.

Members of voter registration groups could also be charged with misdemeanors if they knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas; if they enroll 100 or more voters and don’t complete state training; or if they enroll more than 100 voters and fail to ship completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of registration drives…

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville criticized the law this week, calling it a “punitive regulatory scheme” in an order denying the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits…

The [state] had argued that preventing the law from taking effect would “rob the public and the court of the opportunity to see whether the harms that the plaintiffs have predicted will, in fact, come to pass.”

Trauger was unswayed by the argument. 

“The court declines to find that the public interest would be served by treating people and organizations that wish to participate in democracy as test subjects for empirical inquiry, at least in this case,” the order says. 

“There is simply no basis in the record for concluding that the Act will provide much benefit to Tennesseans, and even less reason to think that any benefit will come close to outweighing the harms to Tennesseans (and non-Tennesseans) who merely wish to exercise their core constitutional rights of participating in the political process by encouraging voter registration,” Trauger wrote.

The Tennessee law will now be on hold while the court considers a request to block it permanently.

In Florida, a court refused to pause, or stay, a challenge to the state’s planned implementation of changes to the rules for voters formerly convicted of felonies. Fox35 Orlando has more:

A federal judge in Tallahassee has turned down Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to put on hold a challenge to a new state law carrying out a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Republican governor and Secretary of State Laurel Lee this week asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to put the federal lawsuit on hold while the Florida Supreme Court considers a related case. But in a brief order Wednesday, Hinkle denied the request.

Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups filed the federal challenge shortly after DeSantis signed into law a measure (SB 7066) that requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have their voting rights restored.

The plaintiffs in the case allege the state law imposes an unconstitutional “poll tax” and violates a number of other constitutional rights. Proponents of the law, including DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, have argued that it adheres to the wording of the amendment, which granted voting-rights restoration to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation,” excluding people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

The terms of sentence include financial obligations ordered by courts, the defendants maintain. DeSantis’ attorneys asked Hinkle last month to dismiss the federal lawsuit. A short time later, they sought guidance from the Florida Supreme Court about whether the state law correctly carries out the constitutional amendment, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4 and was approved by nearly 65 percent of Florida voters.

The state on Tuesday asked Hinkle to put the federal case on hold until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter, “as the opinion would be instructive on a question of state law interpretation that has practical implications on the challenges raised in these actions.” The state court is slated to hear arguments in the case on Nov. 6.

Both of these cases are likely to be very important in 2020 and beyond because of the impacts on state policies regarding voter registration in the two respective states. Neither ruling puts an end to the process, however; further litigation in these courts (and, likely, appeals courts) will continue. Don’t be surprised if these cases are still in doubt when voters in the states go to the polls early next year. Stay tuned …

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