Shameless: Florida's Tea Party Governor Trying to Strip Voting Rights from Thousands
May 31, 2012 |
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How low is Florida’s Tea Party Republican governor Rick Scott willing to go to disrupt the right to vote in 2012—particularly for the GOP’s perceived political opponents?
Progressive voting rights groups and even county election supervisors from Scott’s own party are saying the businessman-turned-governor’s latest gambit—claiming there are as many as 182,000 non-citizens among the state’s 11.2 million registered voters and having his appointed Secretary of State send out an initial list of 2,600 names to be purged—has crossed a line in the Florida sand, topping previous voter suppression efforts, and may violate two federal voting right laws.
On Thursday evening, in a late-breaking development, the U.S. Justice Department's top voting rights enforcement officer, sent Florida's Secretary of State a letter saying the state should stop the planned purge and explain its intentions within a week. The turn-of-events capped several days of escalating actions that began to reveal that the purge, Florida's latest voter-supression move, appeared to be little more than a right-wing fantasy unsupported by any facts.
“What’s happening is un-American,” said Ion Sancho, longtime Supervisor of Elections in Leon County, where the state capital is located. “That’s the only way I can put it.”
“It shouldn’t be politics. It should be straight up, if the person is eligible, let the person vote. That’s what we care about here,” said Eddie Thompson, public information officer for Brevard County Supervisor of Elections Lori Scott. “She is the same party affiliation as the governor… but has called him out on this.”
Scott’s urge to purge voters, particularly likely Democrats and the imagined right-wing obsession—hoards of non-citizens voting illegally—has been a constant throughout his tenure. It is consistent with the conservative hyperventilating in other states where GOP majorities have imposed many statewide ballot security measures complicating voting, even though—as in Colorado recently— claims of non-citizen voters could not be substantiated.
Last year, Florida’s legislature changed 80 sections in the state’s election law, three of which have been challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act. These contested provisions, which cannot be implemented until cleared by the DOJ or a court, halved the state’s early voting period, heavily regulated voter registration drives, and required that poll workers give eligible voters who have moved across county lines a provisional ballot.
These three changes disrupt the voting process at key stages. On the front end, venerable groups like League of Women Voters have canceled registration drives this year for fear of large fines if they did not meet difficult filing deadlines. Then, as Election Day nears, a shorter early voting period, in a state where the number of voters has grown by 18 percent since 2000 but the number of polling places has shrunk, is a prescription for chaos. And that congestion will only be augmented by thousands of voters receiving provisional ballots because they moved across county lines—and the GOP won’t allow local officials to speedily accommodate them using electronic voter registration records.
On Thursday, a federal court in Florida issued a preliminary injunction against the state for restricting the registration drives, creating a window for those to resume before the August primary elections. Whether that will be appealed by the state or continue into the fall is not known, the League said in a press conference call.
But that is not all Scott has done to roll back voting rights. The governor also reversed rules established by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, to re-enfranchise an estimated 70,000 nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Scott imposed a five-year-waiting period before the ex-convicts can recover their voting rights.
“They are making it hard to get on the rolls by restricting voter registration drives. They are making it hard to vote by limiting the number of days for early voting. They’re shrinking the electorate by making it more difficult for people with felony convictions to get their rights restored. And now they are making it hard to stay on the rolls,” said Myrna Perez, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, interviewed before Thursday's court ruling.
Scott’s latest gambit to purge what he alleges are 180,000 non-citizen voters pressed even more political hot buttons—in addition to possibly violating federal civil rights law, as the Justice Department informed him on Thursday evening.
The threatened mass voter purge rekindles memories of Florida’s 2000 presidential election, when Democrats lost the presidency by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Florida Supreme Court’s statewide recount. In a litigation settlement in 2002, the state’s election division acknowledged that 22,000 legal voters had been purged from Florida rolls before the 2000 election. Their names were similar those on a nationwide felon list compiled by a contractor working for another arch GOP partisan, Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Longtime administrators such as Sancho believe the figure is closer to 50,000 purged voters, because the state was reluctant to admit its errors.
In 2004, the GOP-dominated state again tried to purge what it believed were felons on voter rolls, but backed off after a storm of criticism surfaced. Sancho, whom the Florida Supreme Court appointed to oversee the 2000 presidential recount that was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, says the state was gradually forced to improve the paper trail from law enforcement to election officials.
What’s common to all these voter suppression efforts—starting in 2000 and seen again with Scott’s claim of 180,000 non-citizens on Florida voter rolls—is that arch partisan Republicans are relying on inaccurate information to impose restrictions on various stages of the voting process.
The main difference between 2000 and 2012 is that the GOP’s new voting rights villain is no longer felons but instead the imagined illegal voter—presumably a person of color who is not a citizen but is willing to risk imprisonment to vote again and again for Democrats. This imagined enemy has fueled efforts by GOP lawmakers in dozens of states to enact tougher voter ID requirements before receiving a ballot—which started before 2008.
Both odious currents have been seen in Florida elections. In 2008, poll workers turned away soldiers back home from Iraq-Afghanistan deployment because they lacked the newly required photo IDs. That October, Florida’s Republican Attorney General, ex-Congressman Bill McCollum, piled on the Republican Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a former county election supervisor appointed by Gov. Crist, because Browning said there were possibly 108,000 names of registered voters who might be felons.
Crist was confident there would not be problems—but hard-right politicians in Florida and other states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, kept saying voter registration fraud was a terrible problem that was all-but stealing elections for Democrats. In fact, senior RNC officials raised that prospect again this week, as they looked ahead to Tuesday’s special gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin.
Rick Scott’s Voter Purge
Last year, as Florida’s legislature, which did not fund Crist’s felon re-enfranchisement program, passed the voting changes now challenged by the Justice Department, Scott met with Browning to discuss what he believed were thousands of non-citizens on the rolls.
Browning recently recounted that meeting to the Associated Press, saying, “Scott asked him whether or not non-U.S. citizens were registered and if those people were voting?” He explained, “People who register and falsely claim they are citizens can be charged with a crime.” But the governor did not accept that, Browning told the AP. “He says to me—well, people lie.” Browning said that he further replied, “Yes, people do. But we have always had to err on the side of the voter.”
Browning resigned as Secretary of State soon after Florida’s late January presidential primary. According to Sancho—and many other state election directors who have spent their lives working to protect voting rights under Democrat and Republican governors—Browning knew that there was not a single reliable data source or database anywhere in the government with citizenship information that can be accurately used to determine voter registration eligibility. Instead, various state and federal agencies collect citizenship information—usually an oath under penalty of perjury—for their own purposes.
Browning had been around elections long enough to see the trouble ahead, Sancho said. He explained that Brown quit “because he knew this was in fact, potentially, a real disaster. And he didn’t want that happening on his watch. Even though he is a good Republican, there is only so much he can take. He was around in 2000 and 2004 as a supervisor of elections, and he didn’t want that on his watch. ”
Browning’s replacement, appointed by Scott, is former beer industry lobbyist Ken Detzner, and he had his marching orders. In early May, he announced that 182,000 suspected non-citizens would be removed from Florida voter rolls—along with 53,000 newly discovered dead voters on the state’s voter rolls.
These alleged non-citizens' names were identified through the process of data mining—combining different databases to identify information irregularities. Florida’s Division of Elections told local election officials that it had used state motor vehicle records, which relies on Social Security data and contains citizenship information collected since 2007, county jury duty lists, and its statewide voter list, to generate the 180,000 names.
The problem with this process is that none of these data sources was designed to be used for voter registration, which means people will be incorrectly indentified. The Social Security database is especially error-prone in this regard. In 2008, when GOP partisans tried to use it in several Midwest states to identify presumably illegal voters who would be challenged at the polls, they lost every lawsuit in federal court.
Moreover, there is nothing alarming—except to partisans who want to raise alarms—about dead people being on voter rolls. Deceased people are routinely removed after local election offices receive notice from health officials. On May 8, letters were mailed to 2,600 Floridians saying they had been identified as non-citizens, and informing them that they needed to present proof of citizenship within 30 days to regain their voting rights.
As expected many people who were registered voters received the letters. One recipient was 91-year-old Bill Internicola, who fought in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, received a Bronze Star for bravery, and has been a Florida voter for 14 years. Another was 41-year-old Juan Artabe, a Democrat who emigrated from Cuba and has been a citizen since 2009. “I’m upset,” he told the Tampa Times. “How can they be asking me for this?” Another was Miami’s Maria Ginorio, an infirm 64-year-old Cuban who became a citizen in 2009, who told the Miami Herald, “I guess I won’t vote anymore.”
Some Republicans defended the purge letters—such as Florida’s U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio, another Tea Party Republican, who apparently said that it was positive that several hundred of the 1,600 people who were flagged as non-citizens in Miami-Dade County had stepped forward with proof of citizenship. However, the civil rights community more than cringes when it sees the letters sent to Florida counties with the largest minority populations.
That factor—and change in voting procedure—is why voting rights groups such as the Fair Elections Legal Network, Advancement Project, Latino Justice PRLDF, LULAC Florida and Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, and a half-dozen Democratic members of Congress have sent formal letters urging Scott to stop the purge, saying it violates Section 8 of the federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which bans purges 90 days before a federal election (Florida has congressional primaries on August 14).
Moreover, the new voter purge policy also would violate the federal Voting Rights Act, according to New York City’s Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School--a conclusion echoed in the Justice Department's letter sent Thursday.
“Under the federal Voting Rights Act, Florida is not allowed to implement any new practice or procedure that affects voting in counties covered by the Act—including a new purge procedure—without first getting approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court,” said Wendy Weiser, Democracy program director.
Florida Election Directors Say Enough
Two weeks ago, Florida’s local election officials—led by county supervisors such as Leon County’s Sancho and Brevard County’s Scott— told their state overseers that they do not want to be saddled with a politically motivated purge on top of their other duties preparing for Florida’s upcoming 2012 elections. Scott, for example, has been working to open new early voting sites in response to the shorter early voting period.
“I’m feeling really uncomfortable about this,” Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes told state officials attending local election officers’ summer convention, according an AP report. Brian Corley, the Pasco County Supervisor, noted that the state had been sitting on the ineligible voter list for over a year. Gertrude Walker, the St. Lucie County supervisor, said, “We don’t have confidence in the validity of the information.”
It is noteworthy that Florida’s county election officials were blowing the whistle. The AP reported that Gisela Salas, the state elections division director, replied that Florida has asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for access to a federal database—to further screen the non-citizen list, but had been turned down.
In the meantime, the Miami Herald conducted a computer analysis of the 2,600 names to be purged and concluded that, “Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are most likely to be targeted.” And this week, the push-back by other election supervisors who also are Republicans, continued. Seminole County Supervisor Mike Ertel posted a picture on Twitter of a voter who was accused of being ineligible—with his passport.
Sancho says the state election division has told county election offices that Florida will be getting data from the federal Department of Homeland Security to further vet the 180,000 or so remaining names. Sancho doesn’t believe that 180,000 figure is even close to being accurate—as statewide Florida only has prosecuted three dozen people between 2008 to 2011 for not being eligible voters but casting a ballot.
“I think the 180,000 number is a bogus number,” Sancho said. “It has to do with projecting out over a long period of time all of the potentials that they haven’t even begun to do. That is the number that they are using to throw to their base. Gov. Scott is a self-described Tea Party governor, that when he released his first budget he did not release it in Tallahassee, he released it in the villages and barred the press.”
But here is where this developing story gets very strange. The May 9 press release from Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner says the Florida Department of State “is actively seeking access to federal Department of Homeland Security databases such as SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) for further verification of immigration status.” But, to put it mildly, there is no guarantee that this imagined federal database actually would clarify the status of Scott’s alleged 180,000 non-citizen voters.
First, Republicans in other states—such as Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler—last year spent months raising the same issue of thousands of non-citizens voters, and then tried to pressure DHS to release data to clarify the situation, but got no response from federal officials. And the reason for that, according to federal database experts contacted by AlterNet, is that there is no one DHS database with complete and accurate citizenship information.
This is exactly what unfolded in Colorado, where the Denver Post pursued Gessler’s imagined solution, the definitive DHS database, to his imagined problem—thousands of non-citizens voting—and could neither prove that the non-citizen voter problem actually existed as Gessler described, or that DHS could share data to remedy it.
“Identifying and purging non-citizens from voting has become a hot topic of late,” Denver Post editorial writer Alicia Caldwell wrote a day after Florida announced its 180,000 non-citizen voters. “Secretary of State Scott Gessler has made attempts to investigate registered voters who he suspects are non-citizens, so far to no avail. The Post editorial board has always agreed with Gessler that people who are not eligible to vote should not be on the rolls. We’ve just disagreed with him on methods of investigating and purging.”
This same Tea Party script is now playing out in Florida, where recent population growth means it has 29 Electoral College votes in 2012—the fourth largest state. Meanwhile, back in Florida, local officials are awaiting the state’s next move with skepticism.
On Thursday, Courtney Heidelberg, the spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles -- and the only state government official to return AlterNet's calls -- said the agency's attorneys had determined on Wednesday that they could not use the federal DHS immigration database for voter registration screening purposes, because that use was not specified in the state's contract with DHS.
"As it now stands, we will not check the 180,000 names," she said. "We had planned to do it, but upon the advice of the office of general counsel we have been advised not to do it."
In other words, as was the case in Colorado, the tool eyed by the state's GOP political leadership to 'resolve' its claims of alleged non-citizen voting is now off the table. Gov. Scott's charge that 180,000 non-citizens are on Florida voter rolls remains just that, an unproven and unprovable allegation.
Florida's Voting War Continues
Because there is an information vacuum, political propagandists like Florida’s Tea Party governor can continue to raise the imaginary spectre of non-existent threats to the voting process. He can continue to abuse the public trust accorded to his office by pushing for ever more draconian voting rights restrictions, and he can force his state government to create a climate of fear and suspicion around another presidential election.
Meanwhile, county election supervisors such as Sancho are telling the press there will be no voter purges in their counties, citing the NVRA's 90-day window precluding such "list maintenance" before a federal election. The Justice Department's letter fortifies that stance.
How low will Scott’s anti-voting crusade go? It’s hard to predict. And what will stop this partisan madness? It appears Florida is heading into another perfect voting rights storm in 2012. Whether or not the fabricated non-citizen voter purge now whimpers away—as was the case in Colorado—the state still curtailed registration drives for most of the spring, shortened early voting, complicated polling place voting for people moving across county lines, disenfranchised former felons and created an overall atmosphere of fear. And November’s election is more than five months away.
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).