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Florida’s voter purge explained

at 10:58 AM ET, 06/18/2012

Laws designed to clamp down on voter fraud have been causing controversy all over the country. But in Florida, an attempt sparked by Gov. Rick Scott (R) to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls has become particularly heated, devolving into dueling lawsuits, with officials refusing to carry out directives from the secretary of state.


Florida Governor Rick Scott mingles with people after signing bills in Miami on June 12. The governor is in a legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department over the state's effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from lists of registered voters ahead of this year's presidential election. (Joe Raedle - GETTY IMAGES)

The Department of Justice is suing the state over the purge. Florida is suing the Department of Homeland Security. What happened?

As the Miami Herald reported, Scott became interested in the number of non-citizen voters early in his tenure.

The state wanted to use the Department of Homeland Security‘s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database, but federal officials denied access.

Instead, the state elections board relied on the information from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to determine citizenship.

Then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning abandoned the effort, saying the data was too flawed. (For example, some people gain citizenship after getting a driver’s license. Some names on the list were simply there by mistake.)

So the issue was dropped until this February, when a local news station reported on non-citizens who regularly vote. The station gave a list of nearly 100 names to election officials in Collier and Lee counties.

The state picked up its own investigation again. Browning had been replaced as secretary of state by Ken Detzner, who in May sent a list of 2,700 possible non-citizens to county election supervisors for verification — culled from an initial list of 182,000. County officials were supposed to contact everyone on the list, giving them 30 days to prove their citizenship or be purged.

As Browning feared, a backlash quickly followed. There were errors. Democrats and immigrant advocates argued that the purge targeted minority voters.

Eight-seven percent of the people on the list are minorities, according to a Miami Herald analysis; 58 percent are Hispanic.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) defended the effort, asking at a recent Bloomberg event, “How could anyone argue against a state identifying people who are not rightfully on the voter rolls and removing them from the voter rolls?”

Election officials in most counties simply stopped moving to enforce the purge, saying they didn’t trust the state government’s list. (Two counties in southwest Florida have continued with the effort.) Over 500 of the 2,700 had been identified as citizens; 40 had been identified as non-citizens.

“Out of 11 or 12 million voters, that’s a very small number,” said Ron Labasky, an attorney for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “They shouldn’t be on there, but it’s very, very limited,” at least at this point.

The DOJ ordered the state to stop the purge in May. A civil rights lawyer for the DOJ argued that the effort appeared to violate both the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 law that requires a 90-day period between any voter purge and and a federal election, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, under which Florida cannot make changes that affect voting in five of the state’s counties without DOJ approval.

Florida kept going and in turn sued the Department of Homeland Security, arguing that the state has been illegally denied access to the SAVE data.

“The supervisors know that Homeland Security has the ability of improving that [voter] information,” said Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida secretary of state. So I think a lot of supervisors on hold right now are hopeful that Homeland Security will act.”

In a letter earlier this week, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said that Florida failed to provide immigration information necessary for the checks.

A day later, the DOJ sued Florida under the National Voter Registration Act.

It’s also only the latest in a series of battles over voting rights in the state. Since the last election, Florida has shortened the time frame for early voting, made it harder for felons to have their voting rights reinstated and restricted voter-registration drives. The state is tangling with the DOJ over some of those changes.

According to an Orlando Sentinel review, 178 cases of alleged voter fraud have been referred to the  Florida Department of Law Enforcement since 2000.

Battleground presidential states, states with significantly increasing Hispanic populations, states with histories of very close elections, and states covered all or in part by the Voting Rights Act are more likely to institute voting restrictions, said Wendy Weiser of the Brennnan Center for Justice, a public policy and law non-profit organization that opposes the Florida purge. Florida falls into all of those categories.

But other states have looked into non-citizen voters; a Texas-based tea party-backed group called “True the Vote” has been pushing for such efforts.

“These ad hoc purges don’t always come to public light,” said Weiser “We don’t always know what’s going on in other states because its going on behind closed doors.”

 
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