Voting rights groups are celebrating a significant victory against what they claim is the pernicious spread of anti-democratic legislation across America after a federal judge in Florida blocked key sections of a new state law that discourages voter registration drives.

Judge Robert Hinkle slapped down two of the most hotly contested elements of the new law, HB 1355, which he condemned in scathing terms (pdf). He said that a requirement to deliver voter registration applications to a state office within 48 hours was "harsh and impractical".

Hinkle also heavily criticised Florida's imposition of a new form that warns volunteers seeking to register new voters that they face five years in prison if they submit applications including any false information. The judge pointed out that the warning was legally incorrect and concluded that it could only be an attempt on the part of the state of Florida to "discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected, activities".

Florida is considered to be the ground zero of attempts to restrict voting rights in the US. The state has a long history of such measures, which are made all the more poignant given the exceptionally competitive nature of presidential elections there, not to mention the wrangling over the result in 2000 that brought George W Bush to the White House.

Florida also has a substantial population of older voters, students and African American and Hispanic voters – demographic groups that are disproportionately impacted by restrictions on voter access. In 2008, more than 100,000 Floridians were given the vote as a result of voter registration drives.

Yet several local voter registration groups, including the Florida League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote, had to shut down their operations because of the onerous burdens imposed by HB 1355.

"This is a huge win and sends a strong signal to officials in Florida and other states that if you erect barriers to registering voters, we will fight back," said Rock the Vote's president, Heather Smith.

Deirdre Macnab of the League of Women Voters said they would restart their efforts across Florida as soon as they had confirmed that the court's preliminary injunction on HB 1355 had removed the legal risks to which the group's volunteers were being subjected.

The Brennan Center for Justice, which represented the Florida voter registration groups in the federal lawsuit that led to the injunction, has calculated that millions of Americans could be denied their electoral rights as a result of laws creeping across the country. The centre's report, Voting Law Changes in 2012, identifies 20 laws that have passed in 15 states in the passed year, with a further 12 bills pending.

"Those voting law changes are radical and completely unnecessary," said Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the Brennan Center who worked on the Florida case. "They especially hurt those who have been historically locked out of our electoral system – minorities, poor people, and students. Often they seem precisely targeted to exclude certain voters."

In a presidential election year that promises a tight race, any move to whittle down the size of the electorate is certain to be controversial. That is particularly the case as most of the efforts are coming from Republican-held state legislatures, while most of those potentially disenfranchised come from demographic groups that lean towards the Democrats. © Guardian News and Media 2012

[Image via Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons licensed]