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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.
 
 
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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.

But we must remember that this is a Tea Party argument and its political fantasy—that hoards of non-citizens are poised to vote and steal the election for Obama. The Tea Party depends on its members sharing a sense of victimhood and feeling aggrieved, even as it would bully others and shred their rights as registered voters in order to win elections. Detzner’s spokesman Chris Cate told AlterNet that even if the state’s purge stopped one illegal voter, then it would be worthwhile—adding that his office has an obligation to fulfill “statutory requirements” and to administer clean elections.

Cate was asked, what will happen when Florida mistakenly removes legal voters—as was almost the case in Miami-Dade County, where out of 1,600 letters sent to people telling them that they would be taken off voter rolls unless they presented proof of citizenship, more than 500 already had replied and presented proof? Cate replied that the state has been “working on this issue for a year,” has “a due process in place,” and that any legal voter would be “reinstated.”

“We are not aware of anyone who has been wrongly removed,” Cate said, saying the 500 people in Miami who presented proof of citizenship never lost their voting rights. “If somebody was erroneously removed, they would be reinstated,” he said. “They would be given a provisional ballot. And once they contact their Supervisor of Elections with proof of citizenship, that ballot would be counted.”

The problem with the provisional ballot remedy is that it is not a fair solution. Surveys of Florida county election offices after the 2008 presidential election done by voting rights groups such as the NAACP, Voter Action and Advancement Project, found that people issued provisional ballots almost never returned with documentation in the immediate aftermath of voting, when there is a small window to ensure their vote counts.

The remedy Cate describes for anyone who is incorrectly purged—getting a provisional ballot and presenting citizenship proof at country election offices—shifts the burden to voters to fix a problem that they did not create.

Complicating the voting process deters voters—and right-wingers know that. They also know poll workers, who are volunteers, struggle with ever-changing voting procedures. This week in Wisconsin, an election protection hotline run by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law received 1,500 calls about poll workers who were confused by new minimum residency rules even though Wisconsin has same-day voter registration. Some eligible voters, notably students, did not get ballots, the committee said.

What is going on in Florida is that paranoid Tea Party Republicans, led by Gov. Scott, are targeting a problem that is all-but non-existent -- the imagined hoards of non-citizen voters. They are using incomplete or inaccurate data that has resulted in hundreds of legal voters already showing up to preserve their voting rights. And they are blaming Washington for delaying the next steps in their alleged non-citizen purge (DOJ) and for not giving them the data (DHS) that they need to screen 180,000 names.

“DHS has repeatedly ignored or rebuffed Florida’s efforts to gain access to the SAVE [Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements] database—access that was necessary for successful and accurate completion of Florida’s efforts to ensure the integrity of its voter registration rolls,” said Detzner’s June 6 letter to the DOJ’s Herren. “For your reference, I have attached to this letter a chain of emails dating back nine months [his italics], which demonstrates DHS’s refusals and delays in this regard.”

That paragraph is outrageous, because Florida’s motor vehicle agency, which is not a part of its executive branch and has been registering voters for years, already has the SAVE database and has been using it for drivers’ license purposes. Courtney Heidleberg, Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle Department spokesman, told that to AlterNet last week. Her agency’s attorneys last Wednesday decided not to use the SAVE database for voter registration purposes, she said, saying their contract with DHS prohibited it.

Detzner’s spokesman confirmed on Thursday that Florida’s Highway Safety agency had access to the federal SAVE data, but he said the highway agency would not share it with the executive branch. But that inconvenient political fact—revealing that Floridians in state government are not exactly pleased with their governor’s voter purge obsession—was somehow omitted from the state’s bellicose response to the Justice Department.      

This political game is ugly. What makes it dangerous is not just the Tea Party obsession with non-citizen voters and false statements to federal civil rights officials, but rather that legal voters will invariably be trampled in a politically inspired stampede.

Florida’s right-wingers see no downside to casting the Obama administration as complicit in what is tantamount to vote-stealing schemes, an accusation that is on par with claims that Obama does not have an American birth certificate and is ineligible to be president—which the state of Hawaii has repeatedly refuted. It is no accident that the states making these outsized non-citizen voter claims, including Florida, are all presidential election swing-states that Obama won in 2008 and would need to win again in 2012.

But beyond the election year politics is an important reality. There is no definitive federal database concerning citizenship. For years, people registering to vote checked a box and swore by signature, under penalty of perjury, that they were citizens. Top Florida election officials know this. But they are still determined to use imperfect data, and an imprecise computer data-matching program, as the basis to remove voters—and make them prove otherwise.

“There is no comprehensive perfect database that has the information of all non-citizens,” Cate said. “But what DHS has is the best-known database with the most information… It is real-time information.”

Nobody is saying that anyone who is ineligible to vote should cast ballots. What voting rights advocates who are watching Florida are saying, however, is that the state should not use a sloppy data-matching process to purge voters, especially when Florida’s first steps toward identifying and removing "non-citizens" has targeted hundreds of legal voters. Moreover, they are saying that Florida should slow down its voter roll list maintenance process, especially given its record of large-scale mistaken purges.

However, those responses would be rational—and nothing about Florida’s behavior concerning alleged non-citizen voters can be called that. In fact, the conclusion of Florida Secretary of State Detzer’s June 6 letter to the DOJ was like a cross-examination, spitting out questions concerning the DOJ’s intentions and interpretation of voting rights law and demanding a response by June 11. This already ugly fight is going to get a lot uglier before cooler heads prevail.

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).