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Florida's New Controversial Elections Law Gets Another Legal Challenge

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF/AP) -- As challenges to a new Florida elections law stack up, a case filed Monday in federal court alleges part of the law placing requirements on voter-registration organizations is unconstitutional and could keep some people from casting ballots.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the groups HeadCount and the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters Corp., is the fourth challenge to the law, which was passed in April by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The latest case is narrowly tailored to one section of the law that involves what are known as third-party voter-registration organizations.

The law, in part, requires the organizations to inform voter-registration applicants that the organizations might not meet legal deadlines for delivering forms to elections officials. Also, the organizations are required to tell applicants how to register online.

The challenge, filed in federal district court in Tallahassee, contends the law (SB 90) requires a "misleading warning" and violates First Amendment rights.

"The mandatory disclaimer serves no legitimate governmental function or purpose, as there is no evidence that Floridians have been confused about the nature of community-based voter registration activity," said the lawsuit, filed by attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Fair Elections Center. "There is no suggestion that plaintiffs or similar voter registration groups have regularly turned in late forms or that they would make anything other than their best efforts to timely submit forms."

The lawsuit also said the requirements "serve to significantly impede plaintiffs' mission of connecting with new voters and those without Florida driver's licenses and printer access (who must print, sign, and submit their applications created online in order to register to vote) because in-person registration is more effective for reaching these prospective voters and field registration using paper forms is the most effective means of promoting voter registration at the events, festivals, and communities where plaintiffs operate."

The law was one of the most controversial issues of the 2021 legislative session and came after a relatively smooth 2020 election in Florida. Republican lawmakers contended changes were needed to ensure election security and prevent fraud in future elections.

During an appearance May 6 on the Fox News show "Fox & Friends" to sign the bill, DeSantis called it the "strongest election integrity measures in the country" and said it "keeps us ahead of the curve" after the 2020 election.

Much of the attention about the law has focused on additional restrictions placed on voting by mail. The other three lawsuits challenging the measure were filed last month in federal court in Tallahassee and are pending.

On the same day the governor signed the bill, the League of Women Voters of Florida joined the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and others in assailing the new law in a federal suit. Another suit filed by the NAACP and Common Cause alleges the law targets people who are Black, Latino or disabled.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued the state to overturn another elections laws that makes it more difficult for voters to change the state constitution. That law establishes a $3,000 limit on individual contributions to groups promoting ballot initiatives. The limit is imposed until a proposal is approved for the ballot.

Opponents argue that the law would have made it nearly impossible to get such issues as medical marijuana or minimum wage increases on the ballot. Republicans who backed the initiative argued it was needed to keep out-of-state special interest money from influencing the state constitution.

The broader elections law restricts when ballot drop boxes can be used and who can collect ballots — and how many. To protect against so-called ballot harvesting, an electoral Good Samaritan can only collect and return the ballots of immediate family and no more than two from unrelated people. Also under the new rules, drop boxes must be supervised and will only be available when elections offices and early voting sites are open.

The new lawsuit said HeadCount is a national organization that conducts voter-registration efforts at concerts and music festivals, while the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters is a Jacksonville-based non-profit group that helps register voters.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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