It's much harder to find petition-gatherers. (Erin M McCuskey)

It's much harder to find petition-gatherers. (Erin M McCuskey)
Forbidding non-citizens from gathering petitions violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, a federal judge ruled, invalidating that part of a Florida law. (Erin M McCuskey)

A federal judge Wednesday issued a final decision blocking part of a 2023 Florida elections law that placed new restrictions on voter-registration groups, including preventing non-U.S. citizens from “collecting or handling” registration applications.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a permanent injunction against the part of the law that targeted non-citizens, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

The groups Hispanic Federation and Poder Latinx and individual plaintiffs filed the challenge in May 2023 after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican–controlled Legislature approved the restrictions.

“Here plaintiffs have suffered — and continue to suffer — irreparable injuries,” Walker wrote in explaining the injunction. “Indeed, the individual members in this case have been unconstitutionally discriminated against based on their non-citizenship status. This discrimination has prevented plaintiffs from registering new voters — a lost opportunity that cannot be remedied with monetary damages.”

The 12-page decision followed earlier rulings by Walker against the law. In July 2023, he issued a preliminary injunction against the part of the law related to non-citizens and another part that would make it a felony for voter-registration group workers to keep personal information of voters. The state has challenged that ruling at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not issued an opinion.

Walker on March 1 also granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the part of the law dealing with non-citizens, barring Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd from enforcing that part of the law. But Walker left unresolved issues related to Attorney General Ashley Moody’s power to enforce the law.

Wednesday’s decision said the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue Moody and barred enforcement of the law. Walker wrote that an “injunction prohibiting the attorney general from exercising this enforcement authority would effectively redress plaintiffs’ injuries as it would remove the very real threat of a civil enforcement action.”

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Dēmos and the law firm Arnold & Porter. Officials issued a series of statements late Wednesday praising Walker’s decision.

“This law was an effort to restrict registration of eligible voters who live in immigrant communities, which would limit participation in elections by new Americans who have become eligible voters,” Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, said in one of the statements.

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers in recent years have made a series of controversial changes to elections laws. They have argued, in part, that the changes are needed to prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity of elections.

But opponents have contended, for example, that what are known as “third-party voter registration organizations” play an important role in registering Black and Hispanic voters. They say placing restrictions on the groups could make it harder to register voters.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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