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Civic organizations sound alarms about impact of GOP-backed voting bills on registering new voters

By Rachel Janfaza | CNN Politics, September 28, 2021

Washington, DC (CNN) – As voting rights groups look to register new voters on National Voter Registration Day, some organizers are sounding alarms about how new voting laws in Florida and Kansas are affecting voter registration efforts.

In Florida, part of the state's new voting law requires any third-party organization that conducts voter registration work to tell residents that the organization might not deliver their application on time for the next election, and to also explain to residents that they can submit a registration form on their own rather than relying on the group to send it in.

"It almost ties our hands," said Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who started People Power for Florida, a political committee focused on voter registration.

Eskamani, who represents parts of central Florida including Orlando, said she believes the new law is a form of "intimidation."

"It intimidates organizations and volunteers from even trying to do registration because if you do it wrong you could get in trouble," she said.

Eskamani said her organization is moving "full speed ahead" with voter registration, focusing especially on college campuses in the state, where many freshman have just turned 18, making them eligible to vote.

The group also launched a "reactivation program" to help people whose registration has gone inactive get re-registered to vote.

The organization has a goal of registering 25,000 new voters by November 2022.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Fair Elections Center filed a lawsuit against the Florida secretary of state and attorney general on behalf of Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters -- a new nonpartisan organization with a founding goal to register new voters including young people, people of color and formerly incarcerated people -- as well as other organizations that assist voters in accessing the ballot box.

The complaint argues that Florida's new law violates freedom of speech for voter registration organizations, staffs and volunteers.

Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, both of whom were formerly incarcerated and are the co-founders of Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, told CNN they recently founded the organization to promote free speech and reach minority communities with information about civic opportunities. Both McCoy and Singleton had previously registered voters in Florida with other organizations, but wanted to start their own initiative.

"We founded Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters so that we would be free to speak, free to vote, free to go into areas that others won't go into in underserved communities," McCoy said, adding that the new law, which she believes "forces" volunteers to tout a "state sponsored message," creates a lack of trust between voter registration volunteers and potential new voters.

"It's crazy, all these restrictive laws. They're trying to put us backward, and we're trying to move forward. That's the battle. We're not going back," Singleton added.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the original sponsor of the bill, declined to comment.

However, in a statement on the singing of the bill released by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in May, Baxley said, "Florida's leaders have answered the call to ensure that our elections process remains secure and credible."

Meanwhile, in Kansas, one of the state's new election bills -- pushed through by the Republican majority in the state legislature -- made it criminal to falsely impersonate an election official, a move that has discouraged groups from moving forward with their efforts to register voters.

Kansas' new elections law criminalizes "engaging in conduct that gives the appearance of being an election official," or "that would cause another person to believe a person engaging in such conduct is an election official," the bill says.

Organizations in Kansas including Loud Light, League of Women Voters of Kansas, Kansas Appleseed and Topeka Independent Resource Center have sued the Kansas secretary of state and attorney general over the law, arguing that it is unconstitutional and violates freedom of speech.

And to protect its volunteers, Loud Light -- a civic organization founded in 2015 to increase youth voter registration and turnout in Kansas -- paused its voter registration efforts as a result of the new law.

Davis Hammet, who started Loud Light, told CNN the decision came following discussions with attorneys.

According to Hammet, it used to be "no big deal" if someone mistook a voter registration volunteer for an election official. Now, he says, the mishap "could land our volunteers and staff with felony charges."

"This has been incredibly frustrating. Every day there's irreparable harm," Hammet said, adding that the start of the fall semester is usually prime time for registering new voters at college campuses in the state.

"This is what I dedicated my life to, and what I believe in, and now we've been blocked from doing it," Hammet said. "It's been surreal."

Kansas state Sen. Larry Alley, a Republican, who is referenced in the lawsuit as a supporter of the bill, told CNN he believes the goal of the Kansas elections law is to create "transparency," especially when it comes to registering voters.

"In my opinion, if you are registering voters to vote in the state of Kansas, that is not a problem. But telling people who you are is actually all this bill really does. It makes sure that you are telling people that you are not an official from the state of Kansas," Alley said.

Alley told CNN this applies to all groups trying to register new voters.

"As far as groups coming in and registering voters, they can sure do that, but you got to tell where you're from, who you're working with, and what group you're with. Transparency is all that was trying to do."

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