FLORIDA IS one of a number of states to have recently imposed ill-considered restrictions on voting rights, as it interferes with efforts to register new voters and seeks to purge non-citizens from state voting rolls.
State officials, acting at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott (R), have scoured driver’s license and other records to identify non-citizens and have forwarded a list of 2,600 supposedly ineligible voters to local elections officials for further action. Chris Cate, a Florida Division of Elections spokesman, asserted that the division has “a duty under both state and federal laws to ensure that Florida’s voter registration rolls are current and accurate.” But the state also has a duty to ensure that those legally entitled to vote are not unjustly prevented from doing so. The last thing the state needs is another election tainted by questions of fairness.
Mr. Scott’s move does not appear to be based on any showing of widespread voter fraud. It relies on potentially inaccurate databases to identify non-citizens; a resident whose driver’s license information indicates that he is not a citizen may have obtained citizenship and therefore be eligible to vote. Those whose eligibility is challenged are notified and entitled to submit proof of citizenship, but that is a cumbersome and potentially unfair process. A 91-year-old Brooklyn-born man who won a Bronze Star during World War II and had voted regularly for years received a letter from Broward County stating that it had “information from the State of Florida that you are not a United States citizen; however you are registered to vote.” Troublingly, a Miami Herald analysis of the to-be-purged list found it was dominated by Democrats, independents and Hispanics.
The voter roll effort may be illegal as well as unjustified. Parts of Florida are covered by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires it to obtain advance approval from the U.S. Justice Department for such change. In addition, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act prohibits such purges 90 days before a statewide election, such as Florida’s congressional primaries in August. The Justice Department was right to send Florida officials a letter last month questioning whether the state’s actions comply with those laws.
That was not Florida’s only recent brush with voting rights issues. Last month, a federal judge blocked the state from enforcing sections of a new voting law, including one that imposes a 48-hour deadline for voter registration groups to turn in new forms and another requiring volunteer workers to submit sworn statements vowing to obey state registration laws. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle termed the deadline “harsh and impractical” and found that the requirement of a sworn statement “could have no purpose other than to discourage voluntary participation in legitimate, indeed constitutionally protected, activities.’’
Florida’s action follows efforts to enact stricter voter identification laws in South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The Justice Department has already blocked the South Carolina and Texas laws from going into effect under the Voting Rights Act. Virginia’s measure, signed by Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) after the legislature rebuffed his efforts to make the identification requirement less burdensome, has yet to be challenged. The voter ID laws and the Florida effort to purge voter rolls represent ill-advised solutions to a largely imaginary problem. Ensuring voter eligibility is a legitimate state concern, but imposing needless barriers to the exercise of citizens’ constitutional right to vote serves only to erode participatory democracy.