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“Taking a stand,” organizers open Capitol nativity scene

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 by John Kennedy

5th graders sing Christmas songs at Capitol nativity dedication

Christmas songs and prayers joined speeches warning that religion was under attack in the U.S., as organizers dedicated a nativity scene Tuesday near the entrance to the Florida Capitol.

Across the Capitol Rotunda, a 10-foot-tall menorah also was on display, as it has been for several years during Hanukkah. But the nativity scene — just a few dozen yards from Gov. Rick Scott’s office — was a first in the building.

“Our country is a nation of freedom of religion, not freedom from it,” said Palm Olsen, chair of the Florida Nativity Scene Committee.

She added, “We are taking a stand for Christ in Christmas, a stand for truth and religious freedom. And what better place to do this than the heart of our state government.”

The nativity scene, which depicts the birth of Christ, is expected to remain up through Dec. 27. It’s expected to be followed by another display after Christmas honoring Three Kings Day, Jan. 6.

Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, said opening the Capitol to religious-themed displays is a risky precedent for state officials.

“They have now said this space can be used for all forms of expression, religious and non-religious,” Simon said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be sued for being discriminatory.”

ACLU seeks federal probe of FL drug database

Monday, June 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The ACLU of Florida has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the state’s prescription drug database after the Rx drug histories of 3,300 patients were leaked to lawyers in a narcotics sting last month.

The civil rights group is accusing the state Department of Health; the program manager of the drug database, called ““E-FORCSE” (Electronic Florida On-Line Registry of Controlled Substances Evaluation Program); the U.S. DEA; the office of R.J. Larizza, state attorney for the Seventh Judicial Circuit; and other unknown entities and individuals of violating Floridians’ privacy.

Larizza gave the list of names to five of six attorneys for defendants accused of prescription drug fraud in May. Last week, he filed court documents showing that the 3,300 names were the result of a 2011 query by a DEA agent investigating a prescription fraud ring. Michael Lambert, an attorney whose name was on the list but is not accused of any crime, sued Larizza and is also challenging the constitutionality of the law. Lambert believes it is an unconstitutional violation of privacy and amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure by the government.

Last week, the Florida Department of Health, which oversees the program, announced it was exploring stricter security measures to help ensure patients’ privacy.

In the complaint submitted Saturday, ACLU lawyer Maria Kayanan told federal officials that law enforcement officials are given too much freedom when seeking records from the database, according to the program’s user manual.

Investigators can use a “wildcard search using partial text;” enter partial names or conduct a search for a name that sounds like the subject’s name, Kayanan wrote.

“There is no apparent oversight of the use of DOH’s PDMP by law enforcement, and there is no accountability for its misuse. The unacceptably broad queries and apparent lack of oversight invite abusive fishing expeditions by law enforcement agencies that can and, indeed have, revealed to private third parties, the confidential medical and prescription history, along with other personal identifying information, of thousands of individuals who are lawfully prescribed, and lawfully taking, prescription drugs,” she wrote. An individual’s prescription records are medical records, as they reveal intimate details of an individual’s medical conditions—details that should remain private, within the doctor-patient relationship.”

The ACLU is ramping up its attempt to get state health officials to tell them exactly what DEA Agent Sean Tucker asked for and that resulted in so many patients’ drug records. Health officials initially said the information sought by the ACLU was exempt from the state’s Sunshine Law because it is part of an active investigation.

Kayanan, in a renewed public records request made today, argued that the exemption citing “active investigation” cannot possibly include the other 3,294 people who are not among the six accused in the Volusia County case. She’s also trying to find out how many times law enforcement agencies have used a broad name search in their queries, how long the state is retaining those queries, and all of the requests from investigators the department has rejected.

Attorney General Pam Bondi and others insist the database has contributed to a decline in prescription drug overdoses and a sharp decrease in “doctor shopping.” Gov. Rick Scott initially opposed the program, citing privacy concerns, but later relented.

Created in 2009, the database became operational in the fall of 2011 but funding for the program foundered. Lawmakers banned the use of state money or contributions from drug companies to pay for the program until this year, when Scott signed off on $500,000 in public funds for the database.

Was Gov. Rick Scott right to worry about prescription drug database?

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013 by Dara Kam

It took some convincing, but proponents of Florida’s prescription drug database, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, finally persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on the program that contains Rx information for narcotics and other addictive drugs.

Scott balked because he didn’t trust that the database couldn’t be hacked or that individuals’ prescription drug info could be erroneously made public.

Now, the ACLU of Florida, which has taken Scott to court over a variety of his policies, is saying that’s exactly what’s happened, and that the drug records of 3,300 individuals has landed in the wrong hands.

The ACLU claims that the prescription drug records of 3,300 individuals were given to prosecutors and defense attorneys in six criminal cases in Volusia County.

“Somehow information that is supposed to remain private and confidential and be safely maintained in this unfortunate database made its way into third parties who have no right to it,” said ACLU of Florida attorney Maria Kayanan.

The civil rights organization is seeking more information about how the patients’ prescriptions, birthdates, addresses was made public during the court cases.

The database was created in 2009 but wasn’t up and running until 2011. Lawmakers this year agreed to allow state money to be used to fund the database, pushed by President Obama’s drug czar and others as way to help fight prescription drug abuse by preventing “doctor shopping.”

The ACLU has issued a public records request to the Florida Department of Health and to the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in search of records relating to requests made by local or federal law enforcement agencies to the Electronic Florida On-Line Registry of Controlled Substances Evaluation (E-FORSCE) database.

“It certainly looks like there were multiple breaches at multiple places. Some of them may have been unintentional. We don’t know. But the bottom line is this is so very wrong,” Kayanan said.

Scott takes drug testing of welfare recipients to Supreme Court

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott will appeal a federal court ruling upholding a ban on drug testing of Florida welfare recipients.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found that Scott’s lawyers did not make the case for lifting the injunction on the urine tests for people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A federal judge in Florida issued the temporary injunction in October 2011, finding the law – pushed by Scott in his first year in office – violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

The three-judge panel agreed.

“The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy,” wrote Judge Rosemary Barkett in the 38-page opinion.

But Scott issued a statement said he would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court’s ruling today is disturbing. Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the wellbeing of Florida families. We will protect children and families in our state, and this decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court,” Scott, who is running for re-election next year, said.

U.S. District Mary Scriven has not yet ruled on whether to permanently strike down the law in the case filed by the ACLU of Florida on behalf of Luis W. Lebron. She could issue a ruling on that matter at any time, said Maria Kayanan, the lead ACLU lawyer in the case.

Both today’s ruling and Scriven’s opinion found that the plaintiffs are likely to win their arguments that the law is unconstitutional. Kayanan said Tuesday’s opinion showed that Scott’s administration has a “heavy burden” to prove that the law is not.

“After reading the court of appeals opinion, to ask the Supreme Court to review this decision is political theater based on ideology,” Kayanan said.

The court rejected all of Scott’s arguments that the law is necessary, including that there is a “special” reason for the government to require the drug tests.

And the court rejected Scott’s argument that the tests are needed to make sure that children whose parents receive the temporary cash aid are safe and that “none of the State’s asserted concerns will be ameliorated by drug testing.”

And the court rejected the argument that the urine tests are not an unconstitutional search because TANF recipients must “consent” to the drug tests in order to get benefits.

The mandated ‘consent’ the State relies on here, which is not freely and voluntarily given, runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s long-standing admonition that the government ‘may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests,’” Barkett wrote.

Filings in the case showed that the drug testing done by the Department of Children and Families was problematic. DCF stopped the tests after the Scriven blocked the law in October 2011.

ACLU says Scott has led “wide-ranging, expensive assault” on civil liberties

Thursday, January 10th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The ACLU of Florida said Thursday that the 11 lawsuits the advocacy organization has filed or joined challenging policies of Gov. Rick Scott shows his two years in office has been marked by repeated attempts to undermine constitutional liberties.

ACLU executive director Howard Simon said the organization chose to release its midterm assessment at a time the Republican governor has showed signs of moving toward the political middle, with an eye toward his 2014 election.

But Simon said Floridians should reflect on past actions by the administration, helped by a supportive, Republican-dominated Legislature.

“It is a wide-ranging, expensive assault on civil liberties,” Simon said.

The Palm Beach Post reported last year that taxpayers had spent at least $900,000 on private lawyers, filing fees, expert witnesses and other costs associated with lawsuits against the administration. Simon said Thursday that four of the cases remain at various levels of appeal by the administration.

Simon said that while ACLU has tangled with Florida governors in the past — notably former Gov. Jeb Bush — the number of lawsuits pales compared to those filed in the first two years of the Scott administration.

ACLU has challenged Scott over executive orders or legislation involving voting rights, religious freedom, abortion rights, judicial oversight, freedom of speech, and proposed drug-testing of public employees and welfare recipients.

Three proposed constitutional amendments defeated by voters last fall that would have affected the courts, public money flowing to religious organizations, and reproductive rights shows Floridians don’t support many of the approaches taken by the administration and Legislature, Simon said.

While ACLU has been successful in getting courts to halt many of the Scott-backed requirements, voting law changes in place last fall led to long lines at Florida polling places and difficulties by elections supervisors tabulating ballots, Simon said. Scott and legislators are now proposing changes and have voiced concerns about problems encountered by voters.

Simon, however, likened Scott’s reaction to news of problems to that of the character Capt. Renault in the film classic Casablanca, who was “shocked” to discover gambling at establishments he had allowed it to flourish.

“That all came about as a direct consequence of the policy they enacted,” Simon said of Scott and lawmakers.

Looking ahead to the 2013 legislative session, ACLU attorneys said Thursday that the organization intends to promote several criminal justice changes, including death penalty provisions that would require unanimous agreement by juries recommending capital punishment.

 

 

 

Welfare drug tests proved problematic, court documents show

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 by Dara Kam

New court filings in a lawsuit over Gov. Rick Scott’s mandatory drug testing of applicants for welfare assistance reveal a hastily patched-together system marked by a lack of protocol and uniformity and concerns by state workers that the process was overreaching.

Documents filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on Monday revealed that one applicant with kidney failure and on dialysis was forced to submit urine via a catheter. Another had to leave her young children alone with a drug test company employee while going to the bathroom to provide a urine sample. And one batch of drug tests from an unapproved lab in West Palm Beach was found in a box in a Department of Children and Families office.

Dozens of applicants who tested positive for drugs were then referred to the state abuse hotline and investigated, the records showed, although testing positive for drugs alone is not a reason for an investigation under other circumstances.

The documents, uncovered by the ACLU as part of the discovery in the lawsuit against Scott’s administration, also reveal that some counties did not have approved testing labs and the department would not provide funds for transportation.

Read the ACLU’sACLU’s and DCF’s motions, and the rest of the story.

Another elections challenge in Florida

Monday, July 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, a pair of voting-rights organizations have filed yet another challenge to Florida’s election law.

Joyner, the ACLU and the National Council of La Raza are accusing the state of essentially creating two voting systems in Florida, a violation of federal voting laws that require “uniformity.”

The challenge, filed in the Division of Administrative Hearings today, deals with the Gov. Rick Scott administration’s decision to allow portions of the new law to go into effect everywhere in the state except five counties that require federal “preclearance” before election law changes can go into effect.

Section 5 of the National Voting Rights Act require federal oversight for elections in Hendry, Collier, Hardee, Hillsborough and Monroe – with a history of racial or language discrimination against voters. The federal law covers the Florida counties as well as six other southern states – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia – Alaska, and counties in North Carolina, Arizona, Hawaii, and Idaho.

The U.S. Department of Justice, the ACLU, La Raza and other civil and voting rights groups are fighting Florida over the four most controversial portions of the election law in federal court in Washington.

Those portions include a reduction of the number of days for early voting and restrictions on when voters can change their addresses at the polling place. A federal judge in Tallahassee struck down two other portions of the law dealing with third party voter registration groups, but those remain at issue in the Washington case.

“These are not trivial changes of laws or practices that might be applied differently to allow for local idiosyncrasies; they bear directly on rights that are central to the electoral process,” the complaint reads. “The establishment of this dual regulatory system by the Secretary is the antithesis of uniformity.”

The new law does away with early voting the Sunday before the general election. But civil rights groups argue that’s the day that many black voters participated in “Souls to the Polls” when church-goers cast their ballots after attending services.

Critics of the new law say it is aimed at keeping minorities, low-income and college students – who helped boost President Obama into the White House four years ago – from being able to vote for his reelection in November.

Civil rights groups file federal lawsuit over Florida voter purge

Friday, June 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A coalition of civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over a controversial non-citizen voter purge the Justice Department considers a violation of two federal elections laws.

The ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges asked a three-judge panel in Tampa to stop Secretary of State Ken Detzner from continuing the scrub until the Justice Department decides whether it is permissible.

The purge, the brainchild of Scott, has sparked a national outcry and partisan divide over voting in the presidential battleground of Florida. And it’s created a tug-of-war between President Obama’s and Scott’s administrations.

Detzner in April sent elections supervisors lists of more than 2,600 potentially ineligible voters flagged by matching driver license records with the state’s voter registration database. More than half of those on the list – gleaned from a master list of more than 182,000 voters – had Hispanic-sounding surnames. Elections supervisors found that many of those targeted for removal were naturalized citizens, and backed away from the scrub last week.

Federal law requires “preclearance” of voting or elections changes in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. Five counties in Florida – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – require such preclearance.

But Detzner asked for the federal go-ahead for those counties before moving ahead with the purge, the lawsuit, filed on behalf of two Hillsborough County naturalized citizens and Mi Familia Vota, argues.

Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday told a Congressional committee that the purge appears to violate federal law prohibiting states from doing voter registration database maintenance 90 days before an election. That deadline passed on May 16 for Florida’s Aug. 14 primary. The Justice Department asked Detzner to stop the scrub, but Detzner this week told Holder’s office he believes President Obama’s administration is breaking the law by not giving the state access to a Department of Homeland Security database with current immigration information.

Murat Limage, a Haitian-American U.S. Citizen, and Pamela Gomez, who is a Dominican-American Hispanic U.S. Citizen, brought the suit along with Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to working with the Latino/Hispanic community to increase civic participation. Both Gomez and Limage are registered to vote in Hillsborough County.

Haitian-born Murat Limage, one of the plaintiffs in the case, registered to vote after becoming a naturalized citizen two years ago. Limage was one of the more than 2,000 voters who received written notice from local elections officials notifying him that he “may not be a U.S. citizen,” the lawsuit reads.

According to the lawsuit, Limage provided his U.S. passport and other citizenship documents to the Hillsborough County elections office but has not yet received confirmation that he will be allowed to vote.

“When I received the letter saying that they had information that I may not be a citizen, I was concerned that someone was taking away my citizenship,” Limage said in a press release announcing the lawsuit today. “I’m an American which means I can vote and that’s all I want to do.”

UPDATE: Gov. Scott’s state worker drug testing unconstitutional, federal judge rules

Thursday, April 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott said he will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that random, suspicionless drug testing of state workers is unconstitutional.

“As I have repeatedly explained, I believe that drug testing state employees is a common sense means of ensuring a safe, efficient and productive workforce. That is why so many private employers drug test, and why the public and Florida’s taxpayers overwhelmingly support this policy. I respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and will pursue the case on appeal,” Scott said in a statement.

Gov. Rick Scott’s random drug testing of state workers is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled today.

Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro Thursday morning ruling that random, suspicionless testing of some 85,000 workers violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures also raises doubts about a new state law quietly signed by Scott this spring allowing the governor’s agency heads to require urine tests of new and existing workers.

“To be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, a search ordinarily must be based on individualized suspicion of wrongdoing,” Ungaro wrote in her order issued this morning, citing previous U.S. Supreme Court orders which decided that urine tests are considered government searches.

Scott issued an executive order requiring random drug testing of new hires and all state workers after he took office last year. But he suspended the tests in June after labor unions and the ACLU challenged the order, objecting that the tests are a violation of the constitutional right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Instead, Scott limited his order for all but corrections officers pending the outcome of the Miami case.

Lawyers for AFSCME, the union representing government workers, and the ACLU argued that drug tests should only be ordered if a worker is suspected of a substance abuse problem or for employees in high-risk jobs. Previous Supreme Court decisions upheld drug testing in those jobs, Ungaro noted, or in cases involving school children.

Ungaro rejected Scott’s lawyers’ arguments and data showing that about 1 percent of workers at certain agencies who underwent the drug screens tested positive. And she was not persuaded by the governor’s arguments that private sector drug testing shows widespread drug use among workers. She also did not agree that prospective or current state workers could seek employment elsewhere if they object to the tests. New hires, but not current state workers switching jobs, could be required to take the tests, Ungaro ruled.

“All of the upheld drug-testing policies were tailored to address a specific, serious problem. In contrast, the rationale for the Governor’s policy consists of broad prognostications concerning taxpayer savings, improved public service, and reductions in health and safety risks that result from a drug-free workplace,” Ungaro wrote.

Lawyers for the union and the ACLU, who had expected Ungaro to rule as she did, nevertheless applauded the decision.

“With her order today, Judge Ungaro has protected the privacy and personal dignity of tens of thousands of Florida’s best and brightest – our state workforce,” said Alma Gonzalez, Special Counsel of AFSCME Council 79, which brought the suit. “There never was any evidence that state employees used drugs more than any other group so this was a case of using hard working state employees to score political points.”

Scott’s lawyers argued that the drug tests were necessary to combat drug abuse and ensure a more efficient workforce.

But individual rights to privacy trumped the government’s interest in those issues, Ungaro found.

“The fundamental flaw of the EO is that it infringes privacy interests in pursuit of a public interest which, in contrast to the concrete and carefully defined concerns in Skinner, Nat’l Treasury, and Vernonia, is insubstantial and largely speculative,” Ungaro wrote, referring to cases in which the Supreme Court upheld the tests.

And she also did not agree with Scott’s arguments that the drug tests were a part of Florida’s “transparent” government.

“The Governor’s reasoning is hardly transparent and frankly obscure. He offers no plausible rationale explaining why the fact that a state employee’s work product and financial status are publically accessible leads to the conclusion that the employee’s expectation of privacy in his or her bodily functions and fluids is then diminished. And in any event, no court has relied upon a policy of transparent government, embodied in laws such as those cited by the Governor, as sufficient to overcome a public employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his or her urine. This Court sees no reason to be the first,” she wrote.

The new law, a priority of Scott’s which goes into effect on July 1, allows Scott’s agency heads to order the drug tests for up to 10 percent of their workers four times a year. Lawmakers did not include any additional funding for the urine tests, which run from $5 to $40, in the measure (HB 1205) in the state’s $70 billion budget, prompting some critics to question which services agencies will cut to absorb the costs. Workers can be fired if the drug screen is confirmed positive.

Drug testing state workers soon to become law

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

State workers would have to submit to random drug tests after the Senate signed off on a bill pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, certain to sign it into law once it reaches his desk.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure (HB 1205) by a nonpartisan 26-14 vote, rejecting concerns that suspicionless, random drug testing of government workers is unconstitutional, intrusive and demeaning to the state’s 100,000-plus workforce, most of whom have gone without a pay raise for six years.

“There’s been no predicate laid whatsoever on why we need to have this bill,” said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican and self-described libertarian, adding that he has been in the legislature for more than a decade.

“I haven’t been running across drug-addled employees who are unable to do their jobs,” he said.

And the measure is overly intrusive, Negron said, because “your urine and your blood are extremely personal body fluids.”

But the bill sponsor Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, argued that public and private sector workers should be subjected to the same requirements and that the screening could help prevent addiction.

And, he said, not requiring the tests could be dangerous.

“What you’re going to create then is a haven for abusers,” Hays said. “Then drug abusers will know they’re safe if they come to work for the state of Florida.”

Scott’s legal team has helped the bill’s House and Senate sponsors persuade lawmakers that the drug screening will be upheld even as they defend the policy in court. The governor is being sued over a drug-testing policy he imposed on state workers last year. After the ACLU and the state workers’ union sued the state, Scott in June quietly reversed his order for all but corrections officers pending the outcome of the case.

Miami U.S. District judge Ursula Ungaro, who heard the case against Scott last week, expressed serious doubts about the governor’s order and “had trouble understanding the circumstances under which the order would be valid.”

The measure would allow Scott’s agency heads to decide whether they want to institute the policy and require that they use money already in their budgets to cover the costs of the tests, which range from $5 to $40.

Senate panel schedules Tampa hearing on Fla’s new voter law

Monday, December 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Just days before Florida holds its first election under a voter law blasted by Democrats, a Senate panel announced Monday it will hold a hearing in Tampa to gauge public reaction to the new measure.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson spearheaded the call for fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois to bring his Judiciary subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Rights to the state. The panel is scheduled to hold a hearing Jan. 27 in Tampa, four days before Florida’s Republican presidential primary.

Tampa’s Hillsborough County is among five Florida counties where voting law changes must be approved by the federal Justice Department because  past racial conditions threatened voting rights.  Nelson said, “The community has many diverse groups of voters that might be affected the most under Florida’s new law, like seniors, young voters and minorities.  One recent and credible study says new laws like Florida’s could suppress millions of votes nationwide in the 2012 election.”

Democrats have pushed hard against voter laws approved in Florida and 13 other Republican-ruled states which they say are aimed at blunting Democratic turnout in next year’s presidential contest.

 Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from Davie, earlier this month announced that  the party has launched a new website www.protectingthevote.org aimed at informing voters of the new standards — and rallying support for having them overturned.

Florida’s law is already the subject of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and voting rights organizations.

Supporters of the state’s new law deny any partisan motivation, instead saying the stricter standards are merely intended to reduce the risk of voter-fraud.

The new measure reduces the number of days available for early voting, while also imposes tighter reporting standards for third-party groups that register voters.  But a study earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that Florida’s law is part of a larger mosaic of stricter standards which could keep 5 million people nationwide from voting next year.

 

 

DNC launches website opposing new voter laws in Fla and other states

Thursday, December 1st, 2011 by John Kennedy

Democrats continued Thursday to blast new voter laws in Florida and 13 other states which they say have been crafted by Republican leaders to blunt turnout and damage President Obama’s re-election bid next year.

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from Davie, said the party has launched a new website www.protectingthevote.org aimed at informing voters of the new standards — and rallying support for having them overturned. Florida’s law is already the subject of  a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and voting rights organizations.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee also plans to hold a hearing in Florida in coming weeks on the new law, following a request by Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who said the state’s new standard violates “basic rights.”

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Wasserman Schultz said Republicans are out to “rig elections.”

“By now, it’s well known they’re determined to roll back the right to vote and skew the 2012 presidential election,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Democrats and their allies have blistered the new Florida law, which reduces turnout by reducing the number of days available for early voting, while also imposing tighter reporting standards for third-party groups that register voters.

 A study earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice found the new laws could keep 5 million people nationwide from voting next year.

Supporters of the measures deny any partisan motivation, instead saying the stricter standards are intended to reduce voter-fraud.

Wasserman Schultz, though, isn’t buying that.

A 74-page report released Thursday by the Democratic Party concluded, “every major investigation into voter fraud in the United States has arrived at the same conclusion: There is almost none. The real fraud has been the use of baseless allegations to change election laws in ways that will lead to partisan Republican gains.”

 

 

 

 

ACLU wants Senate hearings on voter law before Jan. 31 prez primary

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The ACLU of Florida, already suing to overturn the state’s new voting law, urged a Senate panel Wednesday to hold its planned hearing on the measure — preferably before the state’s Jan. 31 presidential primary.

Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin said Tuesday that his Senate subcommittee will hold a ”field hearing” in Florida on the voting standards approved earlier this year by the Republican-ruled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The state’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, called for Durbin to stage the hearing, saying the new measure is designed to blunt Democratic turnout in next year’s presidential election – by imposing stricter limits on third-party groups that register voters and shortening the number of days available for early voting.

 Florida is among 14 Republican-ruled states where new voting laws have been approved that Democrats and allied groups say are motivated by presidential politics.

 ”We agree with your assessment that these new restrictions will disenfranchise a great number of Floridians including young, disabled and lower income voters,” ACLU executive director Howard Simon wrote Durbin. “Moreover, these restrictions were intended to, and will, have a regressive impact on the voting rights of racial and language minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

Simon said Durbin’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights should consider holding three hearings, in Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, and Tallahassee — before the scheduled Jan. 31 primary.

Congressional hearing to be held in Florida on new voter law

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin approved Tuesday fellow Democrat Bill Nelson’s request for a congressional hearing in Florida on the state’s new voter law, which critics say is part of a Republican-driven effort to supress voter turnout in next year’s presidential election.

“In a democracy as vibrant as ours, there is perhaps no right that is so sacred or fundamental than the right to vote,” Durbin wrote Nelson. “I am deeply troubled by the disenfranchising impact of these recently passed state voting laws.”

Durbin is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Durbin said the panel will hold a “field hearing” in the state, examining the impact of the new Florida law and those approved in nearby states.

Nelson wrote Durbin last month, seeking the hearing. He said new voter laws approved in Florida and 13 other Republican-ruled states violate “basic rights.”

Democrats and allied organizations say Republican legislators are trying to reduce turnout by limiting early voting and imposing tighter restrictions on third-party groups that register voters.

The ACLU and other voting rights groups have already sued to stop implementation of the law.  A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found the new laws could keep 5 million people from voting next year.

Supporters of the measures deny any partisan motivation, instead saying the stricter standards are intended to reduce voter-fraud.

 

Nelson wants Justice Department to investigate new voter laws

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whose bid for a third term next year may be hinged on a strong turnout among Florida Democrats, continued to put heat on the strict new elections law approved earlier this year by the Republican-ruled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Nelson on Thursday called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether new standards that took effect in Florida and 13 other states are part of a GOP-backed effort at keeping minorities, college students and other Democratic-leaning voters from the polls.

“These voting changes could make it significantly harder for an estimated five-million eligible voters in numerous states to cast their ballots in 2012,” Nelson wrote, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, citing the findings of the first comprehensive study of the voting laws’ impact by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Florida’s new law imposes tougher requirements on such third-party organizations as unions, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters when helping  citizens register to vote. The league announced earlier this year that it was abandoning its traditional voter registration efforts in Florida because it feared penalties stemming from any possible violations.

The law, which is being challenged as unconstitutional by the ACLU and other groups, also reduces the number of days in Florida available for early voting.

Nelson is facing a five-man field of Republicans seeking to challenge him. And in the last 10 days, he’s sought to keep questions about the new elections law simmering.

Nelson has met with a Volusia County teacher warned for apparently violating the new law by helping students register — with the senator then writing Scott urging that he soften the new law. Nelson also has taken to the Senate floor to condemn the law as violating basic constitutional rights, urging that a committee hold public hearings in states where new laws have taken effect.

 

Federal court says no to Scott administration on elections law rush-job, blames Florida for delay

Friday, October 28th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A federal court has turned down Gov. Rick Scott’s request for expedited review of four of Florida’s most contentious election law changes, blaming Scott’s administration itself for delays.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning asked the three-judge panel to decide whether the four election law changes violate the federal Voting Rights Act and earlier this month asked the panel to also rule on whether the act is unconstitutional and speed up its review. Browning said a decision is needed before the Florida’s early Jan. 31 presidential preference primary or the state could be in trouble for not having the same set of elections laws in all 67 counties. Five counties – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – require federal preclearance of voting rights laws. The rest of the counties have already implemented the changes, but the five counties cannot until federal officials or a federal court approves.

In a 12-page memo issued today, the judges chastised Florida for dragging out the process by side-stepping Department of Justice review. The court said Browning waited three weeks after Scott signed the law before sending it to the Justice Department for approval, removed four provisions of the law from the department’s review after 50 days and later asked the court to expedite its review.

“Thus, the present state of affairs is, at least to an extent, a matter of Florida’s own choosing,” judges wrote. “The Court is neither willing to rush to judgment on the complex statutory and constitutional issues raised in this case nor inclined to impose unreasonable litigation burdens upon the United States and Defendant-Intervenors simply because Florida chose to schedule its primary election early in the election season.”

Browning’s proposed schedule would have given the parties only 28 days to prepare for arguments and allowed the court just two to three weeks to hold hearings and draft an opinion, the judges wrote.

“The Court finds this extraordinarily abbreviated schedule to be unworkable,” they wrote.
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Nelson urges Scott to revamp elections law after teacher draws warning

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has sent a critical letter to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and plans to meet Wednesday with a Volusia County high school teacher whose student voter registration drive could violate Florida’s tough, new elections law.

The law is already being challenged in court by the ACLU and allied organizations. But Nelson is calling on Scott to push for revamping or repealing the measure following the case of Jill Cicciarelli, a New Smyrna Beach teacher and adviser to a local high school’s student government association.

Cicciarelli was registering students to vote since the beginning of the school year. But county Elections Supervisor Ann McFall said she was required to report Cicciarelli to the Florida Department of State apparently for violating the new  standard for those acting as third-party registration organizations.

Florida’s new law imposes strict regulation of third-party registration groups, including requiring that they submit voter  forms within 48 hours after they are signed. Formerly, such organizations had 10 days to submit forms. Either way, state officials said Cicciarelli appears to be in violation — although state elections officials say it’s unclear whether the teacher’s case will be referred to Attorney General Pam Bondi for further action.

Nelson, though, says the controversy points to flaws in the law — which critics say is designed to put hurdles before groups likely to assist minorities, students and other Democratic-leaning voters in advance of the 2012 elections. The League of Women Voters has already announced it has dropped third-party registration efforts.

“After this incident with the teacher, can anyone actually say we aren’t taking a step backwards in Florida when it comes to protecting one of our most fundamental rights?” Nelson asked in his letter to Scott.  “I hope that you and every Floridian, regardless of political party, will stop and re-examine this controversial law.”

Federal court tosses elections lawsuit

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A federal judge in Miami has thrown out a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott and his administration over the state’s new elections laws.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit, lacked standing, that the case was moot and that it’s too early to rule on whether the new law is unconstitutional.

Scott applauded the decision.

“I have always been confident that our elections have been conducted fairly and meet every legal requirement. Today’s decision only confirms that opinion. As we draw nearer to nationally significant elections in 2012, I will continue to ensure the integrity and fairness of Florida elections,” Scott said in a statement.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit after Secretary of State Kurt Browning began statewide implementation of election law changes, approved by lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Scott. The civil rights group accused of Browning of implementing the changes without preclearance from federal officials as required under the 1965 Voting Rights Act for five Florida counties.

But since filing the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice has signed off on all but four of the most controversial portions of the elections law. Browning is instead seeking approval from a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., on those sections. The changes yet to be approved would reduce the number of early voting days, set new rules for groups conducting voter registration drives, require voters changing out-of-county addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots and make it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot. Critics object the changes are intended to keep low-income, minority and college student voters – all of whom helped President Obama sweep into the White House three years ago – from casting ballots next November.

The ACLU had argued that because Florida law requires elections laws to go into effect statewide, the elections law should be put on hold until the preclearance is attained for the five Florida counties – Collier,Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties.

But Moore ruled Tuesday that the ACLU lacked standing because it had not been harmed by the new law. And even though the Florida League of Women Voters has stopped doing voter registration drives, nothing in the law forced them to drop the activity, Moore found.

“The Court cannot locate in the pleadings any harm or any threat of actual or imminent harm as required for constitutional standing,” Moore wrote in his dismissal.
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Browning asks court to scrap federal oversight of Florida election laws

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning today asked a court to do away with federal approval of changes to the state’s elections laws in five counties under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, alleging that the that part of the Act is unconstitutional.

Browning also asked a three-judge federal court panel in Washington to expedite its review of four election law changes approved by lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. Browning went to the court in July for approval after initially submitting the new laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for “preclearance,” required for under federal law for five counties – Hendry, Collier, Hardee, Hillsborough and Monroe – with a history of racial discrimination against voters.

The federal law covers the Florida counties as well as six other southern states – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia – Alaska, and counties in North Carolina, Arizona, Hawaii, and Idaho.

Under changes to the Voting Rights Act approved by Congress in 1972, the preclearance is required for jurisdictions in which at the time less than 50 percent of the voting-age citizens were registered to vote or voted in the presidential election, had a non-English-speaking population of more than five percent, and provided voting materials only in English.

“I am hopeful the federal court will come to a quick resolution and approve the remaining provisions of our preclearance submission as nondiscriminatory,” Browning said in a statement. “However, I am frustrated that the reason we are still waiting to implement Florida law in five counties is because of an arbitrary and irrational coverage formula based on data from 40 years ago that takes no account of current conditions.”

All changes to the state’s new elections laws must be approved by the Justice Department or by a federal court, a rare move according to elections experts.

Browning asked the court to rule on the new elections laws before the end of the year. If not, that could pose problems for Floridians voting in the GOP primary now slated for Jan. 31 because the five counties would not be operating under the same laws as the rest of the state. State law requires that voting laws be uniform statewide.

Instead of getting federal approval for the four most controversial portions of the state’s new elections laws, Browning went to court, making U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder a defendant in the case.

Florida is one of more than a dozen states that passed elections laws this spring that critics object are aimed at keeping low-income, minority and college-student voters – who typically vote for Democrats and helped President Obama win the 2008 presidential election – away from the polls.

The ACLU and others are challenging the new elections laws in federal court in Miami.

Florida and other GOP-dominated states’ new elections rules could shut out 5 million voters next year

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida and more than a dozen other states’ new elections laws intended to clamp down on voting fraud could keep 5 million Americans from voting in next year’s presidential election, a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice found.

As in Florida, the laws require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots, cut back on early voting days or impose restrictions on voter registration drives. Florida’s new election law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in May and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott includes all of those elements and more.

The ACLU and other groups filed a federal lawsuit in June against Scott’s administration over the elections laws changes. The groups and the Brennan Center also asked the Justice Department to reject the most controversial provisions of the law. Late in July, Secretary of State Kurt Browning sidestepped the DOJ and instead asked a federal three-judge panel to sign off on those four portions being challenged in the lawsuit. Federal approval is required for five Florida counties under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Brennan Center analysis found that the new laws, including Florida’s, could have a significant impact on next year’s presidential election because the changes will primarily impact minority and low-income voters who tend to vote for Democrats. Florida’s law could also make it more difficult for college and university students – who played a key role in President Obama’s 2008 victory – to vote.

“This is the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades. More voters may be affected than the margin of victory in two out of the past three presidential elections,” Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a statement released with the new study. “In 2012 we should make it easier for every eligible citizen to vote. Instead, we have made it far harder for too many. Partisans should not try to tilt the electoral playing field in this way.”

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