Florida’s War on Voting Rights

Florida’s War on Voting Rights June 6, 2012

The Republicans have been engaged in an all-out assault on voting rights all across the country, but nowhere has it been more brazen than in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature have done everything they could to keep as many people from voting as they possibly can in an effort to rig the elections in their favor. Ari Berman has a long article in Rolling Stone detailing the ways they’ve done so.

Imagine 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 that hasn’t slowed them down in the slightest.

But in early May his successor, Kurt 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.”

But these are features, not bugs. All of this is quite intentional. Thankfully, there is a legal and political backlash going on. The DOJ has ordered the state to stop the voter purges and a federal court has enjoined the voter registration limitations. But even so, these actions have undoubtedly prevented thousands of people from registering and voting because the League of Women Voters and other groups suspended their registration programs. And that’s all Scott and the Republicans care about.

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  • uncephalized

    The whole way the voter reg system works in this country is completely idiotic. The government knows perfectly well who is and is not a citizen. And in general they know where 99.9% of the citizens live, keeping regular track of them for the purposes of tax collection, mail delivery, and delivery of welfare services. This means that in the age of computer networks, it should be trivially easy to keep track of who is eligible to vote using social security numbers. You should be registered automatically by a computer system on the day of your 18th birthday and remain eligible until you die or renounce your citizenship. You would be registered at your last known primary address until such time as you update that address with the MVD or other government office, at which point your registration would be automatically transferred to your new district. None of this silly registration and purging rigmarole is necessary for any reason

  • katkinkate

    It’s a very bad idea to let those up for election to have any say/control over the electoral rolls. They should be in independent hands.

  • How is the suspension of voter registration drives at all legal?

  • Oh, and the fact that our “mainstream” “news” outlets aren’t mentioning this AT ALL is further proof that our media are nothing more than reich-wing propaganda mills.

  • eric

    The whole US election apparatus should be made nonpartisan. Sure, let each state maintain control of their elections. But make the state organizations that run it (and alter district borders after each census) part of the regular civil service – remove all political appointees from it.

  • eric

    @1: non-citizens can get social security numbers. Basically, anyone who can legally work in the US can get one. So that is not a good proxy measure for citizenship.

    But I agree with the gist of what you’re saying: in this day and age, it should be relatively easy for States to keep a list of eligible citizens.

  • Jordan Genso

    How do so many people not recognize that the Tea Party Republicans are using their power to try and tip the scales to maintain their power? Or is it that they recognize what is occurring, but they don’t mind since it’s their “tribe” that benefits from it?

    I would’ve thought that everyone could be unanimously opposed to either party “tipping the scales”. It’s so sad to realize the Tea Party Republican voters are not.

    And I will apologize in advance for Godwinning the thread (although Raging Bee may have opened the door @4), but for a little historical perspective, I don’t believe the Nazis had more than 30% of the public support in their country. It’s just that they used the law to ban the other political parties, so even if the majority wanted different leadership, the Nazis couldn’t lose power.

    I’m not saying we have reached that point, or are even necessarily heading towards that point, but if the Republicans did want to reach that point, their actions wouldn’t be much different.

  • roggg

    I’m not an American, but maybe somebody can tell me: Do you still consider this to be a democratic country? I think if we observed all the voter suppression that’s going on in the US today as happening in a developing nation we would strongly condemn it, and denounce the corrupt regime responsible for it.

  • baal

    @rog #8

    I’m American and the combination of the anti-voter efforts & the extreme lack of coverage & the Fed.Dept.ofJustice being slow and limited in its actions, State Attorney’s General not getting involved etc…we’re looking more and more like Soviet Russia / an oligarchy rather than a real democracy.

  • uncephalized

    @eric #6

    I didn’t mean that every person with a SS number should be eligible to vote–just that we already all have government ID numbers through the SS system, which could be easily used as unique identifiers in a federal voter database. Obviously children, non-citizen residents and all sorts of people have SS#s who are not allowed to vote.

  • caseloweraz

    “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.”

    That’s part of the pattern, isn’t it? During the Bush administration, as I recall, the charges of voter fraud (in e.g. Nevada) were raised a few months before the election.

    Done this way, it doesn’t give the safeguards time to react.

  • d cwilson

    caseloweraz @11:

    And those US attorneys who refused to drum up charges of voter fraud in key congressional districts were summarily fired for reasons that were totally not political.

  • robertfaber

    Personally, I believe that deliberate and unlawful disenfranchisement of legally registered and eligible voters should be in the same category as treason, with similar criminal penalties.

  • “How is the suspension of voter registration drives at all legal?”

    Of all the deplorable tactics to prevent people from voting, stopping voter registration drives, or banning out-of-state registration groups, are the most nakedly anti-democratic. There’s no logic behind them at all. Purging voter roles or requiring picture ID at least have some rationale behind them, however bullshit the rationale may be. But preventing registration drives is nothing more than saying, “We don’t want these people voting”.

  • demonhauntedworld

    @#8: I’d like to see someone raise the motion in the United Nations assembly to have them monitor the next U.S. election. It would never happen, of course, but just the thought of the furore it would cause makes me giggle.

  • Chris from Europe


    I’m pretty sure that the election in 2004 was monitored by some international groups. But they could just shrug at the voting computers. (Which is why these machines are introduced. It doesn’t work bettern than counting paper ballots.)