DeSantis signed a sweeping election bill. Advocacies groups are now suing.

Douglas Soule

TALLAHASSEE — Within hours of Gov. Ron DeSantis — now a Republican candidate for president — signing into law a new package of sweeping election system changes, advocacy organizations on Wednesday afternoon filed two federal lawsuits challenging it.

"Senate Bill 7050 is yet another assault on democracy and attempt to muzzle Floridians,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, in a press release.

Her organization, represented by the government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, filed one of the lawsuits on Wednesday.

At issue: the new restrictions on third-party voter registration organizations.

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“Third-party voter registration organizations play a critical role in ensuring that every eligible Floridian has an opportunity to vote, especially Black and brown Floridians,” said Abha Khanna, a partner at Elias Law Group, in a press release. "SB 7050 threatens to disrupt and discourage these organizations from helping marginalized Floridians register to vote."

Khanna's Democratic law firm is representing the plaintiffs in the other lawsuit: the Florida NAACP, Equal Ground Education Fund, Voters of Tomorrow Action, Disability Rights Florida, Alianza for Progress, Alianza Center, UnidosUS and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

Both lawsuits, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, allege the law is unconstitutional, in violation of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.

What's at issue

Florida has passed major election legislation annually since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump and his supporters spread false claims of widespread voter fraud.

"These laws are the foundation of our democracy," said Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island. "Election reform should be something we look at every session."

This legislation, which also "clarified" that DeSantis could run for president without resigning, reduces the amount of time the organizations have to submit voter registration applications, while dramatically increasing the fines for late submission and other violations. 

The aggregate fine that can be levied against an organization goes from $50,000 to $250,000. The organizations had a $1,000 fine cap before last year. 

Proponents says it's geared at bad actors, protecting voters and making sure the groups are meeting high standards.

"We are putting a priority on that voter's personal information. It should be the most sacred part of the entire interaction," said Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, a sponsor of the legislation. "This bill protects the Florida voter, while making sure our elections remain the best in the nation."

But those provisions drew the most noted opposition among the advocacy groups challenging the law, and Democrats, none of whom voted for the bill.

"Nonpartisan third-party voter registration organizations have worked in Florida for years, helping our neighbors join the democratic process by getting them onto the voter rolls and involved in their government," said House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa. "Black and brown voters are far more likely than white voters to get registered by a third-party voter registration organization."

compilation of 36 voting and civil rights groups wrote to legislative leadership before the bill passed arguing that such penalties were "well beyond an amount that community-based organizations, many of whom rely on volunteers, can even begin to afford."

But the fines don't end there. The law bans noncitizens and people with certain felony offenses from collecting or handling voter registration applications. Organizations get hit with a $50,000 fine if that occurs.

The organizations in the letter blasted this as discriminatory, writing it implies “that non-citizens are untrustworthy purely on the basis of their immigration status” and the felony restriction “flies in the face of second chances.” 

They also say it puts a burden on the organizations, which would have to do background checks on all volunteers or shut down if they can’t afford to do so.

The legislation also requires those organizations to give voter applicants a receipt. Supporters, citing stories of people who registered with a third-party group only to learn at the polls they weren't actually registered, tout it as a way to keep people from being disenfranchised. Opponents worry it could further increase burdens on the groups and make them vulnerable to legal trouble via false receipts from unscrupulous people.

The Elias Law Group also accuses the law of violating the Voting Rights Act, taking issue with a mail-in ballot restriction.

The League of Women Voters of Florida is suing state Attorney General Moody and Secretary of State Cord Byrd. So are the organizations represented by Elias Law Group, but they also added in all 67 of the state's supervisors of elections as defendants.

"These organizations are crucial to ensuring that every eligible voter in Florida has access to the electoral process," reads the lawsuit filed by Elias Law Group. "This case arises from Florida’s efforts to disrupt and discourage these organizations from continuing their important work and to disenfranchise the voters they assist."

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a media request for comment.

Kylie Mason, spokesperson for Moody, said the attorney general had not yet been served. Mark Ard, spokesperson for Byrd, said, "I am in receipt of your email and will be in touch."

USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule.