Written by Ari Berman for The Rolling Strone
magine this: a Republican governor in a crucial battleground state instructs his secretary of state to purge the voting rolls of hundreds of thousands of allegedly ineligible voters. The move disenfranchises thousands of legally registered voters, who happen to be overwhelmingly black and Hispanic Democrats. The number of voters prevented from casting a ballot exceeds the margin of victory in the razor-thin election, which ends up determining the next President of the United States.
If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it happened in Florida in 2000. And twelve years later, just months before another presidential election, history is repeating itself.
Back in 2000, 12,000 eligible voters – a number twenty-two times larger than George W. Bush’s 537 vote triumph over Al Gore – were wrongly identified as convicted felons and purged from the voting rolls in Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. African Americans, who favored Gore over Bush by 86 points, accounted for 11 percent of the state’s electorate but 41 percent of those purged. Jeb Bush attempted a repeat performance in 2004 to help his brother win reelection but was forced to back off in the face of a public outcry. Yet with another close election looming, Florida Republicans have returned to their voter-scrubbing ways.
The latest purge comes on the heels of a trio of new voting restrictions passed by Florida Republicans last year, disenfranchising 100,000 previously eligible ex-felons who’d been granted the right to vote under GOP Governor Charlie Crist in 2008; shutting down non-partisan voter registration drives; and cutting back on early voting. The measures, the effect of which will be to depress Democratic turnout in November, are similar to voting curbs passed by Republicans in more than a dozen states, on the bogus pretext of combating “voter fraud” but with the very deliberate goal of shaping the electorate to the GOP’s advantage before a single vote has been cast.
Florida Republicans have taken voter suppression to a brazen extreme. After the 2010 election, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, instructed Secretary of State Ken Browning to compile a massive database of alleged “non-citizen” voters. Browning resigned in February rather than implement Scott’s plan, saying “we were not confident enough about the information for this secretary to hang his hat on it.”
But in early May his successor, Ken Detzner, a former beer-industry lobbyist, announced a list of 182,000 suspected non-citizens to be removed from the voting rolls, along with 50,000 apparently dead voters. (Seven thousand alleged felons had already been scrubbed from the rolls in the first four months of 2012). On May 8, the state mailed out a first batch of 2,600 letters to Florida residents informing them, “you are not a United States citizen; however you are registered to vote.” If the recipients do not reply within thirty days and affirm their U.S. citizenship, they will be dropped from the voter rolls.
The first batch of names was riddled with inaccuracies. For example, as the progressive blog Think Progress noted, “an excess of 20 percent of the voters flagged as ‘non-citizens’ in Miami-Dade are, in fact, citizens. And the actual number may be much higher.” If this ratio holds for the rest of the names on the non-citizens list, more than 35,000 eligible voters could be disenfranchised. Those alleged non-citizens have already included a 91-year-old World War II veteran who’s voted since he was 18 and a 60-year-old kennel owner who has voted in the state for four decades. It’s impossible to quantify how many eligible voters will be scrubbed from the rolls if they’ve moved, aren’t home, don’t have ready access to citizenship documents, or won’t bother to reply to the menacing letter.
“There are lots of things that can go wrong when you have these large-scale systematic purges,” says Myrna Perez, senior counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “They need to be done really carefully, with a lot of transparency, well in advance of the election. And this is too close.” Florida Republicans are following the lead of GOP secretaries of state in places like Colorado and New Mexico, who’ve made outlandish and unsubstantiated claims about non-citizens voting based on sketchy data, bad methodology, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
The purge has sparked a bipartisan outcry from local election officials in Florida. “The state’s supervisors of elections are very, very disturbed,” says Ian Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee. “This was dumped into our laps at the 11th hour. Those of us who have been here long enough get this eerie similarity to the flawed felon databases of 2000 in Florida.”
Adds Deirdre McNabb, president of the Florida League of Women Voters: “We are very, very concerned about this news because of the track record in this state of purging thousands of voters who should not have been purged. We’re deeply troubled and appalled this is happening just months before a major national election.”
As in 2000, the purge disproportionately targets Democratic voters. Two-thirds of the alleged non-citizens on the initial purge list reside in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County, which supported Obama by 17 points over McCain in 2008. The county had the third highest number of naturalized citizens from 2009 to 2011, meaning that many new citizens could very likely be listed as non-citizens in the state databases. Florida Hispanics, who voted 57 percent for Obama in 2008, are only 13 percent of the state’s electorate but make up 58 percent of the non-citizens list. Whites, by contrast, account for 68 percent of registered Florida voters but only 13 percent of alleged non-citizens. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the list by two to one. “Attempts to purge the voter roll so soon after signing one of the nation’s most controversial voting laws raises concern, especially among young and minority voters,” Florida Senator Bill Nelson wrote in a letter to Scott.
Minority voters also bore the brunt of the voting restrictions passed by the GOP last year. Hispanic and African-American voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through non-partisan voter registration drives run by the likes of Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which had to suspend their registration efforts in the state due to new onerous bureaucratic requirements, which threaten to turn civic-minded volunteers into criminals. As a result, black and Hispanic voter registration has declined 10 percent in Florida relative to 2008, according to the Washington Post, with 81,000 fewer voters registered during a comparable period in ’08, says the New York Times. African Americans also made up 54 percent of early voters in 2008; early voting has subsequently been cut from 14 to 8 days, with no voting on Sunday before the election, when black churches historically mobilize their constituents. (The Department of Justice has objected to the changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against minority voters.)
The registration and early-voting restrictions took effect one day after the law passed, under an emergency statute designed for “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare.” Like the purge, the election changes were sold under the banner of “voting integrity,” even though so-called voter fraud cases are virtually non-existent in Florida, as in the rest of the country. From 2008 to 2011, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement received just 31 complaints of suspected voter fraud, resulting in only three arrests statewide. “No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about,” said Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator who opposed the new restrictions.
The state has already pledged that “several thousand” more alleged non-citizens will be targeted from the purge list. “The state told us we’re going to get names routinely,” says Carolina Lopez, special project administrator for the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections. The purge is likely to be challenged by a host of voting rights groups under the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits changes to the voter rolls ninety days before an election (Florida holds state and local primaries on August 14). The Justice Department could also intervene under the authority of the Voting Rights Act. But, despite widespread condemnation, there’s no sign that Gov. Scott is preparing to reverse course.
Following the 2000 election, a major report from the US Commission on Civil Rights found that “statistical data, reinforced by credible anecdotal evidence, point to the widespread denial of voting rights [in Florida].” Ian Sancho, the Leon County elections official, says the political climate surrounding voting in the state is even “more hyper-partisan than in 2000,” which is hard to fathom. If the presidential election is once again decided in the Sunshine State, heaven help us all.
Update – Thursday, May 31: A Florida district court judge today issued a preliminary injunction against the state’s crackdown on voter registration drives – which includes fines of up to $1,000 if forms are not turned in to the state within 48 hours and the threat of felony prosecution based on a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. “When a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter,” wrote Judge Robert Hinkle, “the opportunity is gone forever.” That same principle, incidentally, should apply to eligible voters wrongly purged of their right to vote by the state.
Update – Friday, June 1: In another victory for the cause of voting rights, the Justice Department yesterday told Florida that it needs to get approval for its voting purge under Section 5 of the Voting Right Act to make sure it does not discriminate against minority voters and that the timing of the purge violates the National Voter Registration Act.