US and Florida escalate feud over state's purge of voter rolls

Florida on Monday sued the US to get access to a federal immigration and citizenship database, which it says will help it remove noncitizens from the voter rolls. The US is set to sue Florida to halt its purge.

Joe Skipper/Reuters/File
Voters in the Florida Republican presidential primary are shown at a polling place in Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton, Fla., in January.

Florida's assertion that it has discovered nearly 100 noncitizens on its voter rolls – half of whom may have voted in the past – is not stopping the US Department of Justice from warning the state off its current purge of registration rolls, saying the move is illegal and its results not worth the risk of disenfranchising minority voters.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and a Justice Department attorney are filing dueling lawsuits over the matter, in a state that could be crucial to the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, just as it was in the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. A preelection voter list purge occurred in Florida in that election, too, striking off 57,000 ex-felons (including 3 percent of the total black electorate); afterwards, thousands of votes, predominantly cast by minority voters, were discounted by state election officials.

“What’s going on in Florida is indicative of a battle going on across the country … where Republicans claim this is necessary to protect against voter fraud and minority groups and the Justice Department claim that it’s a thinly disguised way of putting undue burdens on minority voters,” says historian Allan Lichtman of American University, an expert on voting rights and author of “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.” “And, certainly, Florida does not have clean hands when it comes to these kinds of processes.”

President Obama barely won Florida in 2008, with 51 percent of the vote.

Appearing on CNN on Tuesday, Governor Scott said the fact that Florida officials have identified 87 noncitizens on the rolls after only a partial search justifies the state’s effort to purge the voter rolls. (Five hundred names identified as suspect have been confirmed as legitimate voters.) The state says it has a list of 180,000 names it wants to doublecheck, and has begun to check 2,700 of those, although election officials in several key counties, including Miami-Dade, have refused to continue the purge given repeated federal requests to cease and desist.

Voters flagged as potentially ineligible have several venues for due process, including the ability to vote using a provisional ballot pending proof of citizenship, state officials say.

On Monday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sued the US Department of Homeland Security to gain access to a federal immigration and citizenship database that he says could help clear up confusion about particular voters’ eligibility. Federal officials say that the database isn't designed to "hunt" for ineligible voters and that Florida isn't supplying enough personal data about prospective fraudulent voters to get the information from the database the state is seeking. 

“We want all US citizens to vote, [but] we don’t want non-US citizens to vote,” Scott said on CNN Tuesday. “Here’s what we know: We know individuals are voting in our state illegally.”

In a terse letter Monday announcing legal action against the state, Assistant US Attorney Thomas Perez said Florida’s program is “faulty” and is being undertaken too near to an election. In the letter, Mr. Perez noted that “Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act against a historical backdrop in this country in which many purge programs were initiated close to elections, which prevented or deterred eligible citizens from casting ballots in those elections. Where the registration status of eligible voters is questioned close to an election, it creates significant confusion for both voters and election officials.”

“The significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation,” Perez wrote. “Please immediately cease this unlawful conduct."

While the purge has political motivations, some experts say Scott’s effort has partly confirmed a suspicion among some Americans that the voter registration system is flawed. That suspicion that has given rise in recent years to new voter ID laws in 30 states, primarily those controlled by Republicans, prompting challenges from the DOJ in several.

For other Americans, whiffs of Jim Crow and minority disenfranchisement are in the air. Most surnames on a partial list of suspect names have so far been Hispanic. 

So far, the state has not been shown to have wrongly stripped anyone of the right to vote. Last week, Andre Fiset, a Canadian citizen who lives in Hollywood, Fla., was removed from the voter rolls after the state suggested that he had voted in elections before 2006, which Mr. Fiset denies. It's a state and federal felony to commit voter fraud, but Florida doesn’t have hard records to prove that Fiset did vote.

Still, Florida officials are scoring some points in the battle over the voter-roll purge. “So far, there’s less evidence of suppression and more evidence of fraud,” writes Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo.

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