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Florida voter purge fight isn’t over

at 11:23 AM ET, 07/17/2012

The federal government is letting Florida use a Department of Homeland Security database of noncitizens to help purge voters from the state’s rolls. But voting rights activists say the fight over Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s controversial purge is far from over.


Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) listens during the 2011 Governors Summit of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on June 20 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The agreement, a victory for Republicans, comes after months of back-and-forth between Scott’s administration and the federal government over access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database, which is designed to determine eligibility for benefits — not voting.

Republican administrations across the country are cracking down on potential voter fraud, mostly through more restrictive voter ID laws. The Department of Justice has been fighting many of these efforts, with the support of Democrats who argue that the real goal is to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

Florida is being closely watched by both sides because the attempt to proactively remove ineligible voters from the rolls goes a step beyond other states’ efforts.

Florida Department of State spokesman Chris Cate said the agreement will be signed within days and the Scott administration will begin checking names against the database.

“Homeland Security has been very cooperative,” he said. “The names we’re going to be sending to supervisors are names we have absolute verification through the SAVE database that someone is a noncitizen.”

Florida began attempting to remove ineligible voters from the rolls back in 2011 but could not get access to federal data on noncitizens. So the state relied on data from the motor vehicles department.

Those records are sometimes out of date, and the false positives and bad press that emerged led most Florida election supervisors to halt the purge. Only two counties continued the effort.

“That was really the hiccup with the previous data, that it was only as good as someone’s last interaction with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles,” Cate said. With the new database, the state will “make sure were not inconveniencing any eligible voters.”

But voting rights activists say an extra database makes little difference.

“Our antennae are way up,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “We will be watching very, very carefully to make sure that eligible voters are not removed from Florida voting lists.”

Using a more accurate database “doesn’t mean they can run a last-minute purge,” said Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice. “The federal government’s decision to come to an agreement” on the database “has no bearing on the legality of what Florida’s doing under the National Voting Rights Act.”

A federal judge rejected a Justice Department request to suspend the purge. But other lawsuits against Florida are pending, alleging that the purge cannot take place less than 90 days before an election and without preclearance from the DOJ.

Florida can now access the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, which is designed to check whether residents qualify for benefits. But the state must provide a “unique identifier,” such as an “alien number” for each challenged voter, according to the Associated Press, not just names and birthdates. Legal noncitizens have these numbers.

Federal officials denied access to the database for more than a year, saying Florida had failed to provide such unique identifiers.

In a letter to county election supervisors Friday obtained by the blog ElectionSmith, Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R) wrote that the current file of potentially ineligible voters “is now outdated and will not be used as the basis for further action.”

According to the Orlando Sentinel, 107 voters have been purged based on the old list, which identified 2,625 potential noncitizens. Those people will not be put back on the rolls, Cate said.

Florida voters whose citizenship is challenged get a certified letter; if they fail to provide proof of citizenship within 30 days, they are to be removed from the rolls. Voters who do not respond by mail will have their names posted in a newspaper ad and be given another 30 days to respond.

Purged voters can also provide proof of citizenship at the polls on election day or cast a provisional ballot that will be reviewed later.

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) has also requested access to the federal database.

In rejecting the DOJ’s bid to block the purge, Judge Robert Hinkle said his decision was in part based on the fact that the state had stopped moving forward with the purge.

“If the secretary or the supervisors of elections go forward with the program the secretary says he has abandoned, the issue can be revisited,” he wrote.

The state now plans to move forward and send new names to elections supervisors, suggesting that new wrangling with the DOJ — on top of the existing lawsuits — is possible.

“We hope that our success is going to pave the way for other states to stop noncitizens from voting as well,” Cate said.

 
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