Florida’s Voter Purge is Part of a Long History

By Brendan Conley, staff writer – June 28, 2012

Governor Rick Scott of Florida is conducting a controversial “purge” of the ranks of voters, less than five months before the Presidential election. Scott says the move is necessary to eliminate voter fraud, but critics say the purge unfairly targets minority voters and is intended to suppress the vote. A federal order has prompted local election officials to break ranks and refuse to continue with the effort. The new purge calls to mind Florida’s history of voter suppression.

Scott’s Purge
Republican Rick Scott was elected Governor of Florida in a narrow 2010 victory, on a wave of Tea Party support, and with the help of $75 million of his own money. Scott followed through on his promise of fiscal conservatism, even rejecting $2.3 billion in federal transportation aid, saying that the danger of cost overruns for a high-speed rail project was not worth it.

Scott, a Naples, Florida businessman and multimillionaire, promised to bring his business acumen and experience as a CEO to bear on the problems of government. He made waves early in his governorship, when he asked three independently-elected cabinet officials to request his permission before changing state rules. The three – all Republicans – declined. [1]

Less than a year into his tenure, Scott was the least popular governor in the country, with a 26% approval rating.[2]

Scott had promised a hard line on immigration, and within two months of taking office, he expressed an interest in voter fraud. As a first-time political office-holder, Scott was given a presentation about election issues by then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning. Scott asked what systems were in place to ensure that everyone on the voter rolls was a U.S. citizen, and Browning replied that it was an honor system. The governor had a simple response.

“People don’t always tell the truth,” Scott said, according to Browning. [3]

This was the origin of the governor’s quest to discover non-citizens voting in Florida elections, one that he says has succeeded. The state’s effort has resulted in a list of about 180,000 potential non-citizens on the voter rolls, and action has been taken on a group of 2,700 people. The citizenship of more than 500 of those people has been confirmed, while about 40 potential voters were found to lack citizenship status. Of those, four or more people may have voted in an election. [4]

The Legal Battle
The federal government and state voting officials have made clear their disagreement with the governor. The U.S. Department of Justice has told Florida to call a halt to the purge, and nearly all of the state’s 67 supervisors of county elections have said they will not move forward with the effort.

“We’re just not going to do this,” Ion Sancho, election supervisor for Leon County, told the Miami Herald. “The list is bad. And this is illegal.” [5]

The Herald also performed an analysis of the voter purge list and determined that minority and Democratic voters were disproportionately represented. Approximately 58% of the people on the list of potential non-citizens were Hispanic, though Hispanics make up only 13% of Florida’s more than 11 million registered voters. Whites and Republicans were the least likely to end up on the list. Scott’s administration has denied any racial bias in the purge. [6]

The governor’s action has affected the lives of Florida voters. Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old veteran of World War II, was born in Brooklyn, New York and now resides in Broward County, Florida. Internicola recently received a letter stating that he would be removed from the voter rolls unless he could prove he was a citizen of the United States. Internicola said he was astonished and insulted, but he returned the form, with a copy of his discharge papers from the armed forces. [7]

Internicola may not receive much sympathy from Governor Scott, who said that he too was mistakenly removed from the voter rolls. In 2006, when Scott was a private citizen, he attempted to cast a ballot at Naples City Hall, and was told that he could not vote because records showed that he was dead. Scott said he was allowed to cast a provisional ballot and he is sure it was counted. [8]

In the debate over the voter purge, both sides appear to agree on one thing: the list is flawed. Competing lawsuits have been filed over exactly why.

The federal government, civil rights groups and county election officials believe that the list unfairly targets minorities and Democrats and violates federal voting rights laws. According to the federal government, Florida’s voter purge runs afoul of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits many mostly Southern states from changing voting laws without federal approval.

Scott’s administration admits that the list is inaccurate, because the only method Florida officials have to check voters’ citizenship status is state motor vehicle records, which may not be up to date. Secretary of State Ken Detzner of Florida has filed his own lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, claiming that the agency has denied the state access to a national immigrant database, which would allow Florida to conduct the voter purge more accurately. [9]

The History
The current purge calls to mind Florida’s grim history of denying citizens the right to vote.

African-Americans and other minorities have been denied the right to vote for much of the history of the United States. Although the Reconstruction era at the end of the Civil War brought new legal protections, most notably the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship, blacks were still denied the right to vote through the use of literacy tests and other Jim Crow practices, until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act applies to a number of mostly Southern states and counties with a history of denying minorities the right to vote. The law requires “preclearance,” meaning that the affected regions cannot change voting laws without prior approval by the national government. The Act applies to five Florida counties, and this is the basis of the federal order to stop the purge.

In more recent memory, a strikingly similar purge of the voter rolls in Florida may well have decided a Presidential election. In 2000, Secretary of State Katherine Harris conducted a flawed purge of felons that resulted in thousands of eligible voters being stricken from the rolls, disproportionately Democrats and minority voters. The election won George W. Bush the Presidency. The purge was overseen by his brother, then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The election was decided by 537 votes, or perhaps by five: the majority of the Supreme Court that ruled in the case of Bush v. Gore.

Florida is a swing state again in 2012, as are Colorado and New Mexico, states that are also home to many Hispanic voters and have conducted similar purges. Whether Florida Governor Rick Scott’s purge and the right to vote affect this election remains to be seen, but Scott seems to be wrong about at least one thing. He told CNN, “The debate’s over.” [10]

Sources:

1. http://www.tampabay.com/news/aging/nursinghomes/article1145391.ece
2. http://miamiherald.typepad.com/files/ppp_release_miscellaneousfl_0608121.pdf
3. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/06/12/2846319/how-rick-scotts-noncitizen-voter.html
4. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/06/07/2838176/county-elections-chiefs-to-state.html
5. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/06/07/2838176/county-elections-chiefs-to-state.html
6. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/12/v-fullstory/2796905/noncitizen-voter-hunt-targets.html
7. https://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/05/31/154020289/world-war-ii-vet-caught-up-in-floridas-voter-purge-controversy
8. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/06/14/2849924/how-rick-scott-found-out-he-was.html
9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/11/rick-scott-florida-suing-government-voter-purge_n_1588012.html
10. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/11/rick-scott-florida-suing-government-voter-purge_n_1588012.html