News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Florida’s Tea Party Government Picks Voter Purge Fight With Justice Department

Like 2000, Florida is poised to use bad data to purge legal voters.

The Tea Party Republican-run state of Florida is picking a nasty political fight with the U.S. Department of Justice over what it claims are federal obstructions to removing what it alleges may be up to 180,000 non-citizens on the state’s voter rolls.

On Wednesday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner told the federal government’s top voting rights attorney, Voting Section Chief T. Christian Herren, Jr., in a letter that DOJ appeared to be placing the voting rights of non-citizens above legal voters because it told Florida to stop purging voter rolls, and that another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, was illegally withholding data to help identify non-citizens.

“This hardly seems like an approach earnestly designed to protect the integrity of elections and to ensure that eligible voters have their votes counted,” wrote Detzner. “It is an unfortunate but now undeniable fact that Florida’s voter rolls include individuals who are not citizens of the United States.”

This latest volley in the voting wars is not unique to Florida and based on unfortunate and undeniable facts that Detzner’s boss, Gov. Rick Scott, and other high Tea-Party officials overseeing elections in other states—namely Colorado, New Mexico and Michigan—do not want to earnestly discuss. That reality, beyond obvious election-year politics, is that states have established procedures for removing ineligible voters—people who die, are convicted felons, move out of state, or are incorrectly registered.

But these procedures vary with each class of voter and take time, which is intended to protect legal voters from being purged. That has been a bedrock principle of federal and state voting rights law and policy for decades. What is happening now is that states like Florida are doing computer analyses of their statewide voter lists using a variety of government databases that were never designed for vetting voters, particularly for citizenship. In Florida’s case, it wants to use that data for fast track voter purges.

“There are potential non-citizens. We don’t know how many are non-citizens,” Chris Cate, spokesman for Secretary of State Detzner said Thursday. “We don’t know how many names that DHS will be able to confirm, but we will confirm some.”

Under George W. Bush, the DOJ conducted a five-year nationwide investigation into voter fraud between 2002 and 2007, and  found just 86 convictions in a country of more than 120 million voters. The Republican National Lawyers Association listed only 35  convictions in Florida between 1998 and 2011: more Floridians died  from lightning. However, these facts have not stopped Florida’s latest voting rights crackdown.

Last week, DOJ’s Herren wrote to Florida saying that a mass purge would likely violate two federal laws, one that barred any substantial change in voting procedures in states covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and another that barred any purge 90 days before federal elections under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Florida holds its 2012 congressional primaries in early August.

Florida’s response to Herren was political and technical. Detzner claimed Florida would not be violating the Voting Rights Act because DOJ last year approved using government databases to update voter rolls. He then attacked the NVRA, saying DOJ’s reading of the law—to slow down any purging—would undermine legal voters’ constitutional rights, as they would be harmed if illegally registered people voted. “If DOJ applies the NVRA in this manner,” Detzner wrote, “then presumably eligible voters in Florida have the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court to test whether their votes are being unconstitutionally denied by the federal government.”

This argument is completely upside-down. First, it ignores Florida’s own history, where the state admitted in a 2002 court settlement that it had mistakenly purged more than 20,000 legal voters before the 2000 presidential election. It was Detzner’s predecessor, Katherine Harris, who conducted that purge, trampling on Floridians’ voting rights. Moreover, Florida’s current attempt to blame the federal government for non-citizens on its state-created and locally managed voter rolls is factually absurd, because the federal government does not register nor remove voters—local election officials do that under long-established and often-redundant list maintenance protocols.