Florida’s 2023 Omnibus Voter Suppression Law Will Head to a Federal Trial

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, April 1, a bench trial will begin in a federal legal challenge to Florida’s latest omnibus voter suppression law, which was signed into law last May by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Among many so-called “election integrity” provisions, the challenged law places limitations on voter assistance options for requesting a mail-in ballot and imposes burdensome requirements and penalties on third-party voter registration organizations (3PVROs) that engage and turn out eligible Floridians to vote.  

Immediately following the enactment of the sweeping anti-voting statute known as Senate Bill 7050, voting and civil rights groups filed three separate federal lawsuits challenging various aspects of the legislation.

Together, the groups behind the trio of lawsuits — the Florida State Conference of Branches and Youth Units of the NAACP (FL NAACP), Hispanic Federation and the League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVFL) — allege violations of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act that will be adjudicated at next week’s trial.

FILE – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in to begin his second term during an inauguration ceremony outside the Old Capitol Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida lawmakers will meet Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, to complete a state takeover Walt Disney World’s self-governing district and debate proposals on immigration and election crimes, as DeSantis continues to leverage national political fissures ahead of an expected White House run. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Ahead of the trial, a federal judge temporarily and permanently blocked certain provisions of the law.

In July 2023, Chief Judge Mark E. Walker, an Obama-appointee who is presiding over all three cases, temporarily blocked two provisions of the law for likely violating the U.S. Constitution — a ruling that state officials appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where a decision is pending. One of the blocked provisions criminalizes routine retention of voter information for any purpose except voter registration, thus making it a felony to maintain voter information for other activities such as get-out-the-vote efforts.

Walker’s July 2023 preliminary injunction also blocked a separate provision — which he later permanently struck down in early March — that barred noncitizen volunteers from collecting or handling voter registration applications on behalf of 3PVROs and imposed a $50,000 fine on organizations that violated the requirement. As a result of the March 2024 order invalidating the provision on Equal Protection grounds, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Cord Byrd will not be able to enforce S.B. 7050’s citizenship requirement for 3PVROs.

The trial starting on Monday will involve numerous constitutional claims regarding the law’s restrictions on 3PVROs.

At next week’s consolidated trial, the plaintiffs from each of the three lawsuits will argue that a host of S.B. 7050’s provisions — in addition to the already blocked ones — are unconstitutional and curtail voter registration activities without a compelling state interest. The law’s restrictive measures, the plaintiffs claim, intentionally discriminate against Black and Latino voters and burden the right to vote. 

One such provision challenged by the FL NAACP reduces the number of days for 3PVROs to return a voter registration application from 14 to 10 days, but simultaneously requires 3PVROs to pay an increased fine for late-returned applications. The law also increases fines on third-party voter registration organizations for applications that are inadvertently submitted to election officials in a different county from a registrant’s county of residence. 

The FL NAACP maintains that the threat of heightened financial penalties burdens the right to vote and will deter organizations from engaging in voter registration efforts. Such deterrence, the group alleges, will disproportionately harm Floridian voters of color, who are “five times more likely than white Floridians to register with the assistance of a 3PVRO.”

Alongside the FL NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida mounts claims against a portion of the law that requires 3PVROs to provide a receipt to every voter registration applicant that contains the registrant’s name and political party affiliation as well as the name of the individual providing assistance. The LWVFL contends that this receipt requirement is unconstitutionally vague and “adds yet another layer of bureaucracy and red tape” surrounding voter registration activities. 

The LWVFL additionally asserts that a new rule mandating that 3PVROs re-register with the Florida Division of Elections and provide it with the names and addresses of all volunteers every general election cycle imposes an undue, “resource intensive” burden.

One of the plaintiff groups also poses a challenge to a part of the law under the Voting Rights Act.

Another significant aspect of the law at issue in the upcoming trial concerns who can assist a voter with requesting a mail-in ballot. Under S.B. 7050, county supervisors may only accept requests for mail-in ballots from voters and their immediate family members; previously, they could depend on friends, neighbors, community organizations and caregivers for assistance. 

At trial, the FL NAACP will argue that this mail-in voting restriction is superseded by Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows voters with disabilities or those who are unable to read or write to receive assistance from a person of their choice with limited exceptions. According to the FL NAACP, the law’s voter assistance limitations are particularly deleterious to voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency who more often seek assistance from individuals who are not their immediate family members.

On the other hand, the state defendants argue that the law advances state interests in “election integrity.”

In defense of the legislation, Florida’s Republican attorney general and secretary of state aver that the challenged provisions pass constitutional muster and comply with federal law. In particular, the state defendants insist that the law “further[s] important state interests” such as “safeguarding election integrity [and] preventing voter fraud” — a justification that the plaintiffs refute “rings hollow” in light of the fact that recent elections have not been beset by any significant increase in election fraud or security concerns. 

Florida’s 2023 voter suppression law is not the first of its kind to be put to the test at a federal trial. The law builds on some of the anti-voting restrictions established by the state’s 2021 omnibus voter suppression law, significant portions of which were invalidated by Walker following a trial, but later largely upheld by the 11th Circuit last spring. 

The trial beginning on Monday will take place at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida Courthouse in Tallahassee and is expected to last nine to 10 days. 

Learn more about the cases here.