Revealed: Florida Republicans Target Voter Registration Groups With Thousands in Fines

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Florida Republicans have hit dozens of voter registration groups with thousands of dollars of fines, the latest salvo in an alarming crackdown on voting in the state led by Governor Ron DeSantis.

At least 26 groups have cumulatively racked up more than $100,000 in fines since September of last year, according to a list that was provided by Florida officials to the Guardian. The groups include both for-profit and nonprofit organizations as well as political parties, including the statewide Republican and Democratic parties of Florida.

The fines, which range from $50 to tens of thousands of dollars, were levied by the state’s office of election crimes and security, a first-of-its-kind agency created at the behest of DeSantis in 2022 to investigate voter fraud. Voter fraud is extremely rare, and the office has already come under scrutiny for bringing criminal charges against people who appeared to be confused about their voting eligibility.

Election watchdogs worry the new policies could have a chilling effect on engaging voters. There has already been a drop in voter registrations this year compared with 2019 – the last full year leading into a presidential election, according to Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. Through 1 June of this year, 2,430 new registrations had come from third-party voter registration organizations, he said. That’s on pace to be a sharp decrease from the 63,212 new voter registrations third-party groups submitted by the end of 2019.

A crackdown on third-party voter registration groups is also likely to disproportionately affect Floridians of color, who are about five times more likely to register with third-party groups than white voters are.

“The message is clear, [third-party voter registration organizations] are an endangered species in Florida. And it affects this population disparately,” said Smith, who has been retained by the plaintiffs challenging the voter registration restrictions in federal court.

“When you start to ratchet down the ability for groups and their first amendment rights to petition … government by getting people registered to vote, you are going to affect that overall population of registered voters.”

A ‘gross misapplication’ of the law

In mid-May, the non-profit Hispanic Federation received a letter from the office of election crimes and security notifying it that it was being fined $7,500. Fifteen of the applications it collected were submitted to the wrong county – Polk county, in central Florida, when the voters lived elsewhere. Those 15 applications represented a tiny sliver of the more than 16,500 voter registration applications the group collected in 2022 but still resulted in a fine.

Through a public records request, the Guardian reviewed several of the applications the Hispanic Federation submitted that were flagged for fines. In nearly all of them, the voter incorrectly wrote on their own applications that they lived in Polk county. In many cases, the address they listed was just over the county line in Osceola county.

One voter lived just 300ft from the county line, which cut through his neighborhood. Another lived just 660ft from the county line. At least 10 voters lived within three miles of the county boundary, according to a Guardian analysis.

The Hispanic Federation agreed to pay the fine, but wrote a letter to the state saying it “strongly disagreed” with the penalty and called it a “gross misapplication” of the law. The amount of $7,500 could pay the salary of about a dozen canvassers for a week, who could probably register between 350 and 400 people, the group said. The fine essentially meant that mistakes on 15 applications would make it harder to register hundreds of new voters.

“Despite our good faith efforts, professionalism, and due diligence, we cannot eliminate some applications from being processed with errors as we have not been given access to an official mechanism to verify the information of each applicant – which is, in any case, not our role,” the group wrote in June.

“There is no claim that we intentionally misrepresented, nor is there a claim that we diverted, such registrations from the correct county or that we held on to the registrations beyond the required period in which they were to be delivered.”

The Florida department of state, which oversees the office of election crimes and security, did not return a request for comment.

Frederick Vélez III Burgos, the Hispanic Federation’s national director of civic engagement, said in an interview that until the recent change in the law, the group would not have been fined. In 2021, the GOP-controlled legislature tweaked state law to require groups to turn in voter registration forms to the county where the prospective voter lived (they previously could turn them in anywhere). The lawmakers imposed steep fines for non-compliance – $500 for each form that was turned in at the wrong place.

The change came after election officials complained that voter registration groups were bombarding them with applications for people outside their counties. Though the election officials could register voters regardless of where they lived, it created extra work around elections. “What would happen is [the groups] would kind of bomb different counties with a whole bunch of them. So the workload wasn’t fairly distributed,” said Lori Edwards, who serves as the supervisor of elections in Polk county.

While that could cause a headache for election officials, Edwards said, “it is not among the worst offenses that third-party voter registration organizations can do.” Far worse, she said, is when groups wait too long to turn in voter registration applications until after the registration deadline, thus disfranchising the voters.

In 2022, the state legislature raised the maximum amount a group could be fined from $1,000 to $50,000. Earlier this year, it raised the cap again, to $250,000, and shortened the amount of time groups have to turn in the forms after they are filled out from 14 days to 10. Each late application carries a $50 fine. Republicans also banned non-citizens from collecting applications and barred voter registration groups from collecting contact information from people who they register, making it harder to follow up with them later (a federal judge blocked both of these provisions this month).

Two groups have accounted for more than $70,000 of the fines. Hard Knocks Strategies LLC – a for-profit election canvassing organization – has been fined $47,600 since last year for turning in forms late and to the wrong county. And Poder Latinx was fined $26,000 for turning in 52 voter registration applications to the wrong county.

“We’re a small voter registration organization with a long history of playing by all the rules. We had to pay the penalties in Florida to avoid even costlier litigation, but paid them without admission of wrongdoing,” Hard Knocks Strategies said in a statement.

“Are voter registration organizations on the right being targeted as aggressively and frequently in Florida as those seeking to register voters of color and other underrepresented communities? Given Governor DeSantis’ track record, that question may be rhetorical.”

‘I would be allowing the system to win’

After getting fined, activists in Florida say they are determined not to let the penalties deter them from continuing to sign up voters.

Rosemary McCoy, who runs a small non-profit called Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, was fined $600 for turning in a dozen applications late. She said her group does quality control on the applications it collects, reviewing the forms to make sure that they are complete and don’t have errors. If there’s a problem it can take a while to track down the applicant.

McCoy said she plans to pay the fine, but it’s money that would have otherwise gone to provide stipends or a gas subsidy for volunteers.

Someone has to get out there and register people and that’s what we do

Rosemary McCoy of Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters

“That’s a hefty fine,” she said. “The purpose of these fines is to stop us, stop us from registering people … Someone has to get out there and register people and that’s what we do.”

Regina Jackson, a Jacksonville pastor, received a notice in May that she was being fined $50 for turning in a voter registration form late. And while she wasn’t fined for it, the letter also said that the application didn’t have a mark noting the group that had collected it and the date printed in triplicate. Jackson said she had inquired about the specific form before she turned it in with the election office and had been advised it was acceptable.

Jackson considered stopping registering voters altogether after receiving the letter, but had since reconsidered.

“I was like, ‘You know what – I’m not doing this any more,’ she said in May, just after she got the letter. “Then I thought, ‘I would not only be hurting my community but I would be allowing the system to win.’”

Source: The Guardian