Justice Department sues Florida over voter purge

The federal government sued Florida this week to stop the state from continuing illegal voter purges less than three months before the state’s primary election is scheduled to take place.

SOURCE: Florida Division of Elections

In April, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner (Republican) compiled a list of 2,600 ineligible voters by cross-referencing voter registration records with driver’s license database maintained by the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to determine the citizenship status of each registered voter.

The list was distributed in May to all 67 of the state’s county election supervisors with the instruction to “determine eligibility of person based on information you have…if ineligible, remove voter name from rolls.”

Read more: AG Eric Holder vows to enforce Voting Rights Act, protect MLK’s legacy

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on Tuesday seeking to halt Florida’s voter purge.

“The Department of Justice has an overriding interest in protecting the rights of eligible citizens to register and vote free from unlawful burdens, while at the same time ensuring that ineligible persons do not register and vote in federal elections in violation of the law,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The complaint accused Florida of violating Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which prohibits states from removing names from voter rolls within 90 days of any scheduled federal primary or general election.

The NVRA’s 90-day rule was instituted to ensure that registered voters whose names were taken off the roll have adequate notification and time to redress any improper removals or to re-register.

According to the lawsuit, counties in Florida began the voter purge in May and has continued to remove names from its voter rolls after May 16, 2012, which is the NVRA cut-off date for the state’s Aug. 14 federal primary.

“Congress enacted the NVRA against a historical backdrop in this country in which purge programs initiated close to elections prevented and deterred eligible citizens from casting ballots,” said Perez.  “The 90-day quiet period in the NVRA protects eligible voters from being dropped from the rolls right before an election.  It appears that Florida has undertaken a new program for voter removal within this 90-day period that has critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse eligible voters.”

In addition, the Justice Department criticized Florida’s process for determining voter eligibility, saying that the “processes described…rely on outdated and inaccurate data.”

“Consequently, the resulting lists [of ineligible voters] have erroneously identified numerous registered voters in Florida who are U.S. citizens eligible to vote and who potentially could be deprived of their right to vote,” stated the complaint.

Some of the registered voter allegedly removed from Florida’s voter rolls include recently naturalized U.S. citizens, native-born citizens, and even U.S. military veterans. The Justice Department’s suit alleged that Florida state officials “were aware that the resulting [ineligible voter] lists included errors and incorrect information.”

Advocates say voter purge discriminates against Hispanics & communities of color

American citizens of Hispanic and Haitian descent as well as seniors and other people of color are among those at highest risk of being disenfranchised by Florida’s voter purge.

Analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Hispanics make up 61% of the names on the “ineligible” list even though only 14% of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic. “By contrast, only 16% of those on the state’s purge list are identified as white when they compose approximately 70% of Florida voters,” the Florida ACLU pointed out.

A recent Pew Hispanic Center analysis showed that Hispanic voter registration in Florida has grown by 32.3% between 2006 and 2012. According to Florida’s 2012 voter registration data, 38.3% of Hispanic voters are registered as Democrats, 30.7% are registered as Republicans, 29.3% registered without any party affiliations, and 1.7% are registered with other parties. Compared to 2008, 2.2% fewer Hispanic voters registered as Republicans while the Democratic Party saw a modest 0.4% increase in registered Hispanic voters.

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott defends voter purge

The state’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott defended the voter purge, claiming that the state is providing adequate “due process”.

During a televised interview with Fox News on Monday, Scott said that registered voters on the “ineligible” list would receive a letter asking them to prove their citizenship within 30 days. After the 30-day notification, county election supervisors are supposed to post notices in newspapers.

“After that, if you don’t respond and you’re not on the rolls, when you go vote, you’ll have a provisional vote and they’ll figure it out afterwards. There’s complete due process,” Scott told Fox News.

Read more: Transcript: Fox News interview with Florida Gov. Rick Scott on voter purge

Florida election records showed that in the last two presidential general elections, less than half of the provisional ballots were counted. In 2008, only 48.6% of the 35,635 provisional ballots were counted and only 36.4% of the 27,742 provision ballots were counted in 2004. Scott neglected to mention that under Florida law, it is up to the provisional voters to prove their voter eligibility within two days of an election.

Scott said the voter purge is needed to ensure the integrity of elections after the state discovered that 46 non-citizens had allegedly voted.

“We cannot afford to dilute the rights of our citizens their vote,” Scott said.

ACLU sues Florida for Voting Rights Act violations

But the ACLU argued that Florida’s flawed approach in systematically purging voters will unfairly “make lawful citizens and already legally registered voters re-verify their citizenship or lose their ability to vote.”

“The illegal program to purge eligible voters uses inaccurate information to remove eligible citizens from the voter rolls,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of ACLUFL. “It seems that Governor Scott and his Secretary of State cannot speak without hiding what they mean in political spin. They mislead Floridians by calling their illegal list purge ‘protecting citizen’s voting rights.’ This is precisely why Congress has re-enacted, and why we continue to need, the Voting Rights Act – to prevent state officials from interfering with the constitutional rights of minorities. We now look to the courts to stop the Scott administration from assaulting democracy by denying American citizens the right to vote.”

The Florida ACLU on June 8 sued the state on behalf of naturalized citizens who were erroneously placed on the “ineligible” list.

One of the ACLU plaintiffs is Murat Limage, a Haitian-American who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in October of 2010. Although Limage had registered to vote in November 2010, he received a letter from election officials notifying that his name was being removed from voting rolls. Limage was required to re-verify his citizenship by presenting his “U.S. passport and other citizenship documents to the Hillsborough elections office.”

“When I received the letter saying that they had information that I may not be a citizen, I was concerned that someone was taking away my citizenship,” Limage said. “I’m an American which means I can vote and that’s all I want to do.”

Hillsborough county is one of five counties in Florida that are covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Because of their history of voter discrimination and disenfranchisement, counties and states covered under Section 5 are required to have any voting rule changes reviewed and cleared by the Department of Justice or by a DC federal court judge before the changes can take effect. The ACLU suit alleged that Hillsborough county’s actions were not “pre-cleared” and violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Florida sues federal government 

A day before the Justice Department filed its suit, the state of Florida sued the Department of Homeland Security for allegedly wrongfully denying it access to the federal “Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements” (SAVE) program. SAVE is an “information service for benefit-issuing agencies, institutions, licensing bureaus, and other governmental entities” to determine “an applicant’s immigration status, and thereby ensure that only entitled applicants receive federal, state, or local public benefits and licenses.”

“We want to have fair, honest elections in our state, and so we’ve been put into a position that we have to sue the federal government to get this information,” Scott told Fox News.

The ACLU criticized Florida’s lawsuit, suggesting it was a scapegoating ploy.

“Governor Scott’s voter purge has been a colossal nightmare from the beginning and now his tactic is to try to blame someone else for his mistake,” said Simon. “The governor’s claim that he needs information from the Department of Homeland Security to justify his illegal purge of voters is an acknowledgement that he was using bad data and kicking eligible citizens off the voter rolls in the first place.”


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