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 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.