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Three young woman stand behind a table holding voter registration forms.

Alexis Hobbs (center) said the organization she works for, People Power for Florida, may be the only one still registering voters on the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg’s campus.

People Power for Florida

A Florida law that went into effect last July has mostly ended paper-and-pen voter registration on the state’s college campuses, according to students and voter registration organizations. The number of groups registering voters on campuses across the state has plummeted, and while some have refocused their efforts on helping students register online, voting rights advocates worry that that method may be less effective.

“Most college clubs have just completely stopped doing” voter registration, said Alexis Hobbs, a student at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg and the president of the campus’s Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapter. “It’s extremely sad, because there are smaller communities on campus that could have been a very productive part of registration efforts on campus. But now,” she said, “they’re just too afraid to even talk about how to get registered.”

The sweeping, Republican-backed legislation, Senate Bill 7050, increased restrictions and potential penalties for third-party voter registration organizations—a term, often abbreviated as 3PVRO, that refers to any entity other than a state or local elections board that “engages in any voter registration activities.”

Under the new law, these organizations must now re-register as a 3PVRO every election cycle and provide receipts to anyone they register to vote. It also shortens the window during which they must turn in registration applications from 14 days to 10 and increases the maximum penalty for failing to turn these applications in on time to $2,500 per application. The law places restrictions on who can handle and collect registration forms, too, making it illegal for individuals convicted of felonies to sign up voters. (Noncitizens were also barred in the bill from handling the forms, but a federal district court ruled that restriction unconstitutional in March.)

The bill substantially upped the fines for violating these restrictions; previously, a third-party group could be fined up to $50,000 in a calendar year, but that number is now $250,000.

The law has had a chilling effect on third-party groups across the state, with some ceasing all voter registration activities out of fear of being hit by large fines. The same effect has been felt on college campuses, where it’s common for student organizations to hold voter registration drives or tables during events like orientation and homecoming.

“They are worried about that risk,” said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative who started People Power for Florida, a voting rights advocacy organization and a 3PVRO. “The state is just so aggressive. In fact, [we] and others have been fined … it’s hard to fight back because we’re up against the state of Florida.”

The Florida law was one of many attempts in recent years to make it more difficult for students—especially out-of-state students—to vote. Multiple states no longer allow students to use their college IDs to vote. One unsuccessful bill in Wisconsin would have required the state’s university system to provide out-of-state students with guidance for voting in their home state.

Opponents of such measures argue that they aim to keep young people, who skew liberal and turned out in high numbers in 2020, from voting, but Republican lawmakers say they are intended to promote election integrity and prevent fraud.

SB 7050 has already had a notable impact beyond college campuses. Though it’s unclear how many organizations have stopped registering voters as a result of the law, multiple local news outlets in the state have reported on groups ceasing or pivoting their efforts. In North Florida, for instance, the Big Bend Voting Rights Project told WLRN Public Media that it had let its status as a 3PVRO lapse and had switched to a new model: canvassing in neighborhoods with a high number of residents who aren’t registered to vote to educate them about how to become registered, rather than signing them up on the spot.

People Power is one of the few organizations that has continued holding voter registration events on campuses, often partnering with student organizations. Even so, the group has felt the bill’s impact; the cost of training volunteers and staff members has increased, as have attorneys’ fees. For a short time after SB 7050 went into effect, People Power didn’t let volunteers touch the physical voter registration forms for fear of incurring a fine, though they later relaxed that policy.

Connor Effrain, the president of the University of Florida College Democrats, said that registering voters on campuses was already challenging in the state prior to SB 7050. As a freshman, for example, he once asked a former president of the College Democrats if he could take a voter registration form to a friend who wasn’t on campus that day. He was roundly rejected, with the older student fearing repercussions if the form, which could be traced back to the organization, was mishandled or misplaced.

But even back then, he remembers voter registration efforts on campus being significantly more extensive than they have been in the past year. “You’d have kids going around much more actively [on] campus to hunt down people who want to register to vote in person,” he said.

But now, he said, several organizations that used to do voter registration on UF’s campus have stopped doing so altogether.

‘An Untenable Situation’

Because Florida allows people to register to vote online, some third-party groups have altered their methodology to provide QR codes that people can scan, taking them to that online form. This method avoids putting them at risk of any fines, but some voting access experts and advocates see it as less effective than helping someone fill out a paper form in real time. Florida’s online voter registration form also is more restrictive than its paper applications, as it cannot be submitted without a Florida driver’s license or ID number.

The League of Women Voters, one of the largest voting rights organizations in the nation, is among those who’ve altered their tactics. Volunteers at its five campus chapters in the state have been instructed not to register people to vote using a paper form to avoid liability, according to Cecile Scoon, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“It was an untenable situation, and after much discussion, we wanted to protect our members and the league,” she said.

As a result, she said, the league and its college affiliates are hosting fewer events on college campuses, though they haven’t ceased entirely. Now, instead of registering voters on paper, club members show interested individuals how to register online or hand out blank physical voter registration applications, along with envelopes and information about how to either mail or hand-deliver the forms. (The blank forms cannot be traced back to the organization the way that forms picked up from the election supervisor’s office, which include an identification code for the 3PVRO picking them up, can.)

But these methods may not be as effective. Scoon said that, in her experience, people are much more likely to register to vote when they fill out the form in the moment as compared to when they walk away planning to do that task later. The longer they wait to register, the more likely it is that they will forget to do it.

Hobbs, who is a team member with People Power, does register voters on campus via paper and pen as part of her work with the organization. But she has seen other organizations at the university opting to use QR codes instead.

“Usually it’s, like, a tabling event, and they usually just have the QR code and maybe like some candy or something that people can just grab. At a tabling event, people can come up to them and show interest, but I definitely don’t think it’s as productive [as] with paper forms,” she said.

The USF student government, which Hobbs is involved in as a senator, used to do voter registration events every semester, but those have stopped since SB 7050 went into effect. Inside Higher Ed reached out to several public universities in Florida to ask if they hold their own voter registration drives; only one, Florida Polytechnic University, responded, saying it has not hosted such an event in several years.

As far as Hobbs is aware, People Power is the last organization still doing paper-and-pen voter registration at USF.

“We have been really, really rigorous in the training that we provide for our staff members … so we feel that we have effectively minimized our risk to the point where we are comfortable using paper voter registration forms,” said Allison Minnerly, People Power’s communications director. “We still do know that with every legislative session, things can change, so we’re always on our toes. But for right now, we are really confident in the process and procedures that we’ve undergone. We’re going to continue for as long as we can doing voter registration on college campuses.”

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