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Voter Purge, Minority Voting Rights Flashpoints Of New Showdown In Florida

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A lone voter casts a ballot in a downtown Miami condo complex, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, during Florida's presidential primary.
A lone voter casts a ballot in a downtown Miami condo complex, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, during Florida's presidential primary.

Florida officials made it clear Friday that the state will continue to purge as many as 182,000 suspected noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls -- despite a coalition's call to stop the process or prepare for court.

In the last three weeks alone, the Florida secretary of state's office has identified and started to purge what it says are at least 50,000 dead voters from the state's rolls and stripped out about 7,000 convicted felons. Officials at the same time are defending a more controversial plan to remove as many as 182,000 suspected noncitizens from the state's voter rolls.

“Florida has a very shameful history of purging minority voters based on false information before presidential elections,” said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection projects for the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to protect voter rights.

The Advancement Project is one of the five organizations in the coalition that warned Florida last week to discontinue plans to purge alleged noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls. It also called on the Department of Justice to temporarily halt the purge and investigate the state’s actions.

“What’s happening now, is not only illegal but it’s inaccurate, Culliton-Gonzalez said. “There are actual citizens on these lists. So, what’s happening is completely counter to the fundamental principles of our democracy.”

Florida often grabs national attention because the state is home to 11.3 million voters and wields 29 electoral votes, but the apparent showdown in the state is part of a broader battle over voting rights and participation leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Since last year, nearly three dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have considered or passed laws creating new photo ID requirements for voters. Some also shortened early-voting periods, restricted early voting sites in churches and other locations where many minority voters typically cast ballots, and curtailed organizations that register voters. While some of the changes have gone into effect, many remain on hold pending court decisions.

Early this year, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s staff worked with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to identify nearly 3,000 alleged noncitizens who also are registered to vote, said Chris Cate, Detzner's spokesman. The voters in question were not citizens at the time they applied for a Florida driver's license.

However, many people become citizens between scheduled license renewals, voting-rights advocates say.

Still, on May 7, Detzner directed county-level election officials to begin notifying these individuals that they would be purged from voter rolls unless they provided proof of citizenship within 30 days. The state’s warning letters described the individuals as potentially ineligible voters and advised recipients that casting a ballot is a felony.

The letters are consistent with state law, Cate said.

“Nobody should be OK with ineligible voters being on the rolls,” he said. “We're simply trying to address that. And we aren’t more concerned or doing this because this is election year. This isn’t an election year issue. This is a voting integrity issue, something we worry about all the time.”

In the weeks since the first letters hit Florida mailboxes, several newspapers reported on citizens who received a letter. And in mid May, one county election official who is also a Republican, tweeted a picture of himself with a letter recipient and the man’s U.S. passport.

Detzner could not be reached for comment Friday. But in a statement released earlier this month, he said the presence of just one ineligible voter on the state’s voting rolls represents a real threat to the integrity of the voting process.

A Republican appointed in January by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Detzner did not initiate the purge. In 2011, Scott, also a Republican, asked Dentzer’s predecessor, former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, to determine if noncitizens were voting in Florida. Browning’s efforts uncovered the 182,000 possible names.

But Browning, a Republican, was unconvinced of the list’s accuracy and was concerned that asking voters to prove their citizenship interfered with the voting process, the Miami Herald reported. In Florida, like most other states, individuals essentially swear to their citizenship and can face perjury and felony voter fraud charges if it is later discovered that an individual lied, Browning said he told the governor. Scott wanted to move ahead.

In September, Florida began an ongoing quest to access a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database that includes information about individuals who have become naturalized U.S. citizens. The DHS refused to give the state access, Cate said. The Secretary of State's office will instead pay the agency that grants Florida driver’s licenses, which has access to the DHS database, at least $90,000 to run all 182,000 names, Cate said.

“Believe me, if we had this information a year ago, or two years ago we would have acted on it then,” he said.

Timing matters. The National Voter Registration Act requires states to make every effort to monitor and maintain clean and accurate voter rolls, said Sarah Massey, media director of Project Vote, part of the coalition and a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit that works to empower, educate and mobilize low income and other marginalized and under represented voters.

But the same law also says efforts must take place 90 days or more before a federal election begins, Massey said. Florida voters are set to vote in a primary Aug. 14 that includes candidates seeking congressional seats -- meaning the state has missed the three-month deadline.

Beyond the timing of the purge, in an initial list of nearly 3,000 voters, black and Latino immigrants were disproportionately represented, the coalition of advocacy groups said in a statement Thursday. A Miami Herald analysis found nearly 60 percent of the people on the list to be Latino. Hispanic voters constitute just 13 percent of the state's electorate, according to federal data.

The situation has some voting rights advocates talking about the role voter purges have played in previous presidential contests.

“In 2000, thousands were purged [from the rolls] in Florida and thousands couldn’t vote,” said Massey, a spokesperson for Project Vote about the election that pitted former President George W. Bush against then-Vice President Al Gore. “We had an election that was ultimately called by the Supreme Court and that just can’t happen again.”

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