THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 29, 2012
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
The state and the opponents of a suspended voter registration law are moving toward a settlement in a lawsuit over the new rules, both sides said Thursday, even as a group of voters is trying to brush aside the state's legal strategy and pursue an appeal.
In a brief scheduling conference Thursday with U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle, who struck down new regulations on third-party voter registration organizations at the end of last month, an attorney for the groups said the two sides were close to striking a deal.
"We expect to get something on file with the court shortly memorializing the agreement," said Farrah Berse, a lawyer representing opponents who had sued to block the law.
In an interview later on Thursday, Secretary of State Ken Detzner confirmed that both sides are trying to avoid a longer legal battle over the voter law, passed by the Legislature last year.
"I'm optimistic that we'll probably get a good result and there won't be an appeal," Detzner said. "That's not final, but we're optimistic."
In a decision issued May 31, Hinkle struck down a part of the law that require groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote to turn in voter registration forms to election officials within 48 hours of getting them filled out, down from 10 days under earlier laws.
Hinkle also barred the state from requiring volunteers to sign a form that misled voters about the penalties for unknowingly submitting forms with inaccurate information on them. The deadline for an appeal is Monday.
Neither side gave details of the likely settlement, but Berse said it was likely to closely track with Hinkle's ruling and provide for the state to cover at least some of the plaintiffs' legal bills in the case.
With an appeal from the state unlikely, several voters filed a motion this week allowing them to intervene in the case for the specific purpose of keeping the fight going. Those voters argue that a flawed registration process could lay the groundwork for voter fraud and harm eligible voters.
"Thus, this Court should allow Intervenors to join this litigation to allow appellate review of this Court?s crucial ruling concerning the 48-hour rule, because it protects Intervenors? individualized fundamental constitutional right to vote by safeguarding it against dilution, questions concerning the rule?s legality and constitutionality are of widespread public importance, the State itself is highly unlikely to take an appeal, and this Court?s injunction could have a direct impact on the 2012 general election in Florida," the group's filing says.
Even without an appeal, legal fights over part of the law are likely to continue. A federal court in Washington, D.C., is considering whether to allow the most controversial portions of the law to go into effect in five counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Because of a history of racial and language discrimination in those counties, any changes to elections laws must be precleared either by the court or the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lawyers for the state had suggested last week at a hearing in that case that the state was backing off the registration rules, but a spokesman for Detzner said then that no decision had been made on an appeal.