Floridaâ€™s 2008 Election Landscape Looking More Like 2000
A little-noticed federal appeals court ruling this week could lead to thousands of Floridians showing up to vote in November only to be told their names are not on voter lists.
"It really penalizes voters through no fault of their own," said Ion Sancho, election supervisor for Leon County, Florida, where Tallahassee the state capital is located. "It strikes me as absolutely Kafkaesque."
At issue is Florida's so-called "no-match, no-vote" law, which allows county officials to reject new voter registration applications if the names on the forms do not match other state databases. Voter advocacy groups sued the state, claiming that database errors can cause applications to be rejected -- through no fault of would-be voters.
This week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida sided with the state, saying it has the right to reject voter applications if they didn't match an applicant's Florida driver's license or the last four digits of their social security number. The state had been sued by a coalition of voting rights groups after election officials rejected applications from 14,000 African-American Floridians dating back to 2006.
"This ruling puts thousands of real Florida citizens at risk this November based on bureaucratic typos," stated Justin Levitt, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, who argued on behalf of the would-be voters.
Thousands of new voters could be affected because Florida, like most states, has seen a spike in voter registrations in 2008.
"Voters who do everything right, who submit forms that are complete, timely, and accurate, will suddenly find themselves unregistered when they go to vote, because someone somewhere slipped on a keyboard," Levitt said. "It's unjust and it's unnecessary."
"The most senseless part is that the state creates these errors, and then makes it unnecessarily hard to fix the problem," said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, another attorney for the plaintiffs. "You can't show a passport. You can't show a military ID. And though you can show your driver's license itself, it doesn't count if you show it at the polls -- the very place where voters have to show a photo ID anyway."
Westfall is referring to another Florida law that stops voters from fixing mistakes in their registration records in the weeks before an election. Unlike other states, Florida has a limited grace period.
In contrast, Florida's top election official, Republican Secretary of State Kurt Browning, praised the federal court ruling.
"It is critical that Florida have accurate voter rolls, not only to prevent fraud and errors in the system, but to ensure that Floridians have confidence in our voter registration process," he said. "Supervisors are working diligently to provide easy and convenient ways to register, and we all want to protect the integrity of the voter registration process.
Browning also said that local supervisors of elections will work to fix errors, and "this includes notifying the voter of any discrepancy and giving them the opportunity to correct errors on their application."
Echoes of 2000?
But Leon County's Sancho said he was not confident that all Florida counties would be able to double-check questionable applications before November as Browning claims. Voters whose names are missing from registration rolls will receive a provisional ballot at their polling place; but those ballots will not count if there is no voter registration record.
Sancho said the state's most populous counties do not have the staff to research the questionable applications. As a result, those people will fall into a limbo where they will lose their right to vote this fall.
"That is what they did in 2000 with the flawed felon list," Sancho said, referring to an error-filled list of alleged ex-felons compiled for Florida's then-Secretary of State, republican Katherine Harris, that was used to purge tens of thousands of Floridians from voter rolls before that year's presidential election. The purge mostly hurt the Democratic Party.
Sancho said large under-staffed jurisdictions, such as Volusia County, accepted the Secretary of State's ex-felon list as accurate in 2000 and purged voters, rather than verify its accuracy or attempt to research each questionable registration form. The state allows felons to be purged from voter lists right up to Election Day.
"They took people off the list," he said, referring to the county in 2000. "They never checked. They never notified people."
This same scenario could unfold this year, Sancho said, under the state's no-match, no-vote law, as thousands of new voter registration forms are set aside while counties process a "flood" of new voter applications.
Still, voter advocates hope local Florida election officials will use their discretion to help all voters this fall.
"At the very least, the counties can and should help avoid the chaos that this law creates by making it possible to fix the problem at the polls," said Brian Mellor, attorney for Project Vote, another plaintiff in the suit. "We hope that the (county) Supervisors of Elections use the discretionary power they have to allow corrections at the polls so that voters are inconvenienced as little as possible."