Voter registration drives cut back after Republican state laws New Republican-backed laws in several states add large fines or criminal penalties for minor mistakes in voter registration work. As groups pull back, they're reaching fewer voters.

Groups that register voters are feeling besieged by new state laws

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Voter registration drives have helped millions of Americans register to vote over the years. But in recent years, a few states have cracked down on these organizations, leading some of them to end their work. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports from Florida.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: It's a muggy Saturday in Orlando, and Humberto Orjuela is helping two sisters fill out voter registration applications in the parking lot of a Presidente supermarket.

HUMBERTO ORJUELA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

ORJUELA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).


LOPEZ: He's walking them through each field on the form. And the one that stumps Wilmarie Rivera is the question about what party to register with.

ORJUELA: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: At this point, her sister pipes in and asks, well, who do you like - Trump or Biden?

ORJUELA: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: So Orjuela registers Rivera as a Republican, and the two sisters go on their way. Orjuela works for Poder Latinx. The group's program director Carolina Wassmer says they go into Latino neighborhoods to talk to people about voting. And importantly, they talk to them in Spanish.

CAROLINA WASSMER: Because it's not a lot of times, like, people don't feel confident or you know, they're not sure how to register or why to register. So the language really helps meeting people where they're at.

LOPEZ: The work of civic engagement groups has a long history in the U.S., but Wassmer says lately, this work has become stressful as Florida lawmakers began imposing more restrictions on them in recent years.

WASSMER: All the rules and regulations keep me up at night. That's why I always tell the canvassers and educate them on, like, we have to do things to the best. We also always consult our legal team.

LOPEZ: Because of recent changes to Florida laws, people like Humberto Orjuela and Carolina Wassmer have to do more paperwork, like giving voters a receipt with every registration. They also have a tighter timeline to turn those applications into election officials. And they have to be extra careful that they don't make any mistakes because state lawmakers increased penalties for these groups - up to a quarter million dollars in fines per year.

LAVON BRACY: Literally, when we're talking nonprofits, where every dollar counts.

LOPEZ: That's LaVon Bracy, a longtime civil rights activist in the Orlando area, who has personally registered hundreds of voters through the years. She said the cost of making even the smallest mistake now has gotten too high. Now, she just directs people to register on their own.

BRACY: So we have had to be creative as to how we do our voter registrations. And that's for everyone. Most of the agencies are just - they're just afraid to do anything.

LOPEZ: But supporters of these restrictions say they were needed because there have been issues with some of these groups, like not turning in applications on time. And last year, six canvassers were arrested after allegedly falsifying 58 voter registration applications.

RICK ROTH: These are rules that everybody needs to tighten up a little bit.

LOPEZ: That's Republican state representative Rick Roth.

ROTH: You have to do it the right way. We don't want any hiccups, you know? This is important. If you're going to be registering people, we just tightened up the rules and make sure you do it correctly.

DAN SMITH: Infractions do happen.

LOPEZ: Dan Smith is a political science professor at the University of Florida. He says, even though there have been some isolated problems with these third-party voter registration groups, which he calls 3PVROs for short, there's no widespread issues.

SMITH: There are certainly some bad apples with respect to the efforts on the ground. But they are rare, and they pale in comparison to the actions of 3PVROs that are documented.

LOPEZ: Smith says, what we do know is that more than 2 million Floridians have relied on these groups since 2013 to register or update their voter registrations.

SMITH: Not every individual is the same. Not every individual has the same opportunities to register or re-register. They have various types of barriers - maybe it's transportation, maybe it's information.

LOPEZ: And he says these groups really did fill those gaps for some voters. But after the state's new law went into effect, registrations through drives fell by 95% compared to the same period four years ago. Supporters of Florida's restrictions point out, though, that voters can still be registered online or at the DMV. Republican state representative Rick Roth says he just doesn't buy the argument that some voters need these organizations.

ROTH: The way I look at it is, it's kind of implying a little bit that certain groups of voters, you know, don't have access to automobiles or online access and can't go into the supervisor elections office, and so they need extra help. I don't know any of those people. I think it's a fallacious argument.

LOPEZ: Data shows, though, that some voters are more likely to rely on these groups. Florida professor Dan Smith found that over the last decade or so, more than 10% of Black and Latino voters use voter registration drives compared with just 2% of white voters. Democratic state representative Angie Nixon says she thinks the racial impacts of these laws are the reason they were passed. Republican lawmakers have denied this. Either way, Nixon says, she's concerned that communities now have fewer civic resources ahead of a big presidential election this year, where issues like abortion are also on the ballot.

ANGIE NIXON: I don't understand why you would not want everyone who's involved in a democracy to be able to participate in it.

LOPEZ: And Nixon says this goes beyond Florida. Since the 2020 election, lawmakers in Kansas, Missouri, Idaho, Montana, and Tennessee have also passed laws creating tougher rules for voter registration groups. And six more states have considered similar measures.

Ashley Lopez, NPR News, Orlando, Fa.

INSKEEP: And that story was co-reported by Aaron Mendelson of the Center for Public Integrity with support from the Pulitzer Center.

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