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Pro Bono Q&A: Voting Rights Victory in Florida

Litigation partners Robert Atkins and Alex Oh led a team of Paul, Weiss lawyers who secured a landmark voting rights victory in a Florida federal court earlier this year.  In this Q&A, Robert shares some details about the firm's work on voting rights issues in Florida. 

Along with Robert and Alex, the Paul, Weiss team included counsel Farrah Berse and associates Zachary Dietert and Lindsey Weinstock. The Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU Foundation of Florida served as co-counsel.

Q:  What were some of the provisions in the Florida voting law at issue, and how would you describe their impact on potential voters?   

A: The Florida legislature passed a law in 2011 that deliberately made it more difficult for civic organizations like the League of Woman Voters to register new voters.  The law imposed so many unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and such onerous financial (and potentially criminal) penalties for noncompliance that community groups like the League and others just stopped registering voters.   As one of the law's sponsors said in a moment of arrogant candor, "This is Florida. We do make it convenient for people to vote, but I gotta tell ya I wouldn't even have any problem making it harder. This should not be easy."

For example, the law required every volunteer who collects voter registration forms to sign an intimidating sworn statement that falsely suggested the volunteer could be imprisoned if he or she submitted a form in which a registrant provided incorrect information, even if the volunteer had no way of knowing about the innocent mistake.  The law also required that volunteers who submit voter registration forms to Florida elections officials in person must do so within exactly 48 hours of each form's completion, or face penalties.  For a drive conducted on a Friday evening or at the beginning of a three-day weekend, the State interpreted this provision to require that a person hand-delivering forms do so during the exact minute that an elections office opens, or subject his or her organization to potential fines or prosecution. 

Q:  Your clients, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group, sought an injunction from federal district judge Robert Hinkle.  What was the scope of the injunction you sought and what were your arguments in its favor?

A: We sought to enjoin the most burdensome and senseless provisions of the Florida law, including the provisions I just described, on the grounds that they unjustifiably restricted our clients' First Amendment rights to engage in the political speech and association inherent in voter registration activity.  We also challenged provisions of the law as unconstitutionally vague and as violations of our clients' rights under the National Voter Registration Act, a federal statute aimed at increasing the number of eligible Americans registered to vote.

Q:  How did Judge Hinkle rule and why?

A: Judge Hinkle ruled that Florida's law likely violated our client's constitutional and federal statutory rights.  He granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of several of the state law's most burdensome requirements, including its 48-hour deadline for in-person submission of completed forms, the requirement that volunteers sign a misleading and intimidating sworn statement before collecting registration forms, and requirements that groups track every blank form given to their volunteers and report to the State every time a volunteer ceases work with the organization.

Q:  This has been described as a landmark victory ... why?

A: This case lays at the intersection of voting rights and free speech.  The decision is the first in the country to strike down as unconstitutional regulations on voter registration organizations.  It is important precedent because it affirms the First Amendment rights inherent in voter registration activity.

Q:  The Brennan Center for Justice, which worked on the matter along with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, and Coffey Burlington, described the Florida law as "one of a wave of restrictive voting measures passed in 2011."  How have other attempts to oppose these types of laws fared? 

A: The court challenges brought against several other states' laws have been met with varying degrees of success, and some of those cases are still pending right now.  Judge Hinkle's decision in our case now adds to the body of law encouraging federal judges to closely examine the justifications for laws that suppress voter participation.

Q:  Tell us a little about the Paul, Weiss team on this matter.

A: Lawyers from both our New York and Washington offices worked on the case.  Although Alex Oh and I oversaw the litigation, the team really was led by Farrah Berse and the heavy lifting was done by Zachary Dietert and Lindsey Weinstock.   Our former colleagues  Bill Taylor and Matt Huppert helped get the case off the ground.  

Q:  Tell us about the firm's relationship with the Brennan Center? 

A: Brad and I are both members of the Brennan Center Advisory Board, and Sidney Rosdeitcher is a Senior Policy Advisor at the center.   Many Paul, Weiss lawyers have worked with the Brennan Center on litigations involving voting rights, privacy and national security, and living wage laws.  And several of the lawyers on staff at the Brennan Center are Paul, Weiss alumni.

 Q:  What did this victory mean to the Paul, Weiss team and to your clients?

A: Our clients were thrilled with Judge Hinkle's order because it enabled them to get back to work in advance of the 2012 election, registering new voters and encouraging them to participate in the political process.  Our legal team was honored to have played an important role in protecting our clients' rights and expanding the franchise in Florida.

Q:  Did the ruling have an impact on Florida voting in the 2012 election?

A: Absolutely.  The ruling meant that our clients were able to register eligible citizens whose voices might have otherwise been left out of the electoral process altogether.  Ensuring broad participation in the political process is important in any state, but it is particularly critical in Florida, where the margin of victory for the state's electoral college votes in 2012 was less than 1% of the total votes cast, a smaller margin than in any other state.

POSTED ON November 16, 2012 » Learn More About This Practice

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