As Florida’s attorney general from 2003 to 2007, I strongly enforced the laws against illegal voting. When swift action was necessary, I took it without hesitation. I did so out of respect for our democracy — voting is a precious right reserved only for U.S. citizens — but I’m concerned that zealots overreacting to contrived threats of voter fraud by significantly narrowing the voting pool are doing so with brazen disrespect and disregard for our greatest traditions.
As a result of insidious political maneuvers and a lack of respect for voters, we in Florida have been entangled in litigation. The courts and the Justice Department have been required to step in this summer to protect the integrity of the voting process against a sweeping voter purge that the Florida Department of State undertook under the guise of removing non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls. Among those caught up in this shameless purging and notified that he was not a U.S. citizen eligible to vote: a 91-year-old World War II veteran, Bill Internicola, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and has proudly exercised his right to vote for many years.
This is just the most recent example of a mean-spirited and all-too-partisan attempt to restrict access to the rolls and to the polls. A federal court also recently struck down provisions of a law Florida’s legislature passed in 2011, which put heavy burdens on organizations seeking to help voters: burdens that the court described as “harsh and impractical,” serving no purpose other than to make it harder for Americans to participate in the electoral process.
These machinations make a mockery of the democracy we put on display every Election Day. The right to vote is the key to that democracy, giving value to the freedom of speech and making the freedom of religion and the right to assemble possible. When one takes away another’s right to vote, he is taking dead aim at democracy and undermining the very virtue that makes us the envy of the world.
Including as many Americans as possible in our electoral process is the spirit of our country. It is why we have expanded rights to women and minorities but never legislated them away, and why we have lowered the voting age but never raised it. Cynical efforts at voter suppression are driven by an un-American desire to exclude as many people and silence as many voices as possible.
Our country has never solved anything with less democracy, and we’re far better off when more citizens can access the polls — no matter which party mobilizes the most voters to them. As governor of Florida, I extended voting hours and increased the number of days people could vote. I also restored registration rights for felons, years after starting that effort in the state Senate with a member of the opposite party.
I was a Republican at the time of those decisions, which didn’t make me many friends on my side. But when you do the right thing for the people, a political party’s concerns roll off your back quite easily.
The right to choose our leaders is at the heart of what it means to be an American. Our history books are full of examples to the contrary. When we send independent observers to monitor for voter fraud in banana republics, we derive authority from our self-regard as the ideal. When we hear of corrupt voting practices in foreign countries, where the ideal of democracy is nothing more than lip service, we feel good about ourselves.
It’s time to look right under our noses. It’s happening here at home. And it’s our responsibility to honestly assess the root of the problem — which requires doing so with as little partisan bias as we believe belongs in the administration of our elections.
We can’t be surprised every time it turns out that politics are involved in our politics. But neither can we be silent when our democracy is threatened in its name.
There are lines that should not be crossed; meddling with voting rights is one of them. It is un-American and it is beneath us.