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The Nearly Non-Citizen Purges: Why Florida and Colorado (Almost) Call it Quits

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This week, Florida partially settled one of three lawsuits challenging its attempted purge of non-citizens from its voter rolls. The state has promised to send corrective letters to thousands of voters who received unfounded notices of removal and to restore to the rolls any who were wrongly removed. Across the country, Colorado recently conceded it lacks adequate procedures or time to fairly pursue a similar purge effort before Election Day and will not do so. This is good news for the thousands of eligible citizens who otherwise would have been swept up further in these purges. It also reveals a dramatically different story than the tall tale Secretaries of State Gessler and Detzner were selling to the public just a few months ago.

Last year Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler declared a virtual state of emergency -- possibly 11,000 non-citizens on the Colorado voter rolls. Soon after, Secretary of State Ken Detzner in Florida upped the ante by claiming he had a list of 180,000 potential non-citizens. That got attention. Numbers like that indicate a massive problem. But the numbers weren't quite right. Not even close. The final count? According to Colorado it appears that up to 141 non-citizens could be on its voter rolls. That's .004 percent of its 3.5 million registered voters. Florida now reports that its numbers could be as high as ... 207. That's .002 percent of its 11.5 million registered voters. Error-ridden and inaccurate voter rolls are a problem, and any ineligible voter on the rolls should be removed. But playing fast and loose with numbers is not the way to do it.

True to form, that's just what Gessler and Detzner did. Both used these vastly inflated lists to justify relentless purge efforts in advance of the quickly approaching presidential election. They noisily pursued access to a federal data system, Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE), which is used to verify the legal status of noncitizens. They claimed this would enable careful vetting before taking any steps toward removals. But, while shaking their lists of tens of thousands alleged noncitizens, they insisted the security of the election was at stake. They insisted they could no longer wait on verification, or until after the election, to start their purge programs. Prior to checking SAVE, both states sent confusing and threatening notices to thousands of registered voters that called into question their citizenship and right to vote. The latest numbers confirm what I, and other critics of these efforts, repeatedly warned -- this hasty, dragnet approach would sweep in thousands of eligible citizens.

Thanks to concerted public and legal pushback much of the harm to eligible voters has been averted. But Florida's settlement and Colorado's concession to public pressure are not the final chapter.

Gessler has sent the 141 names to local election officials so that they -- or private individuals -- can challenge the eligibility of those voters on Election Day. It appears Gessler has done this without any individualized notice to the persons targeted. Also, he has not advised the nearly 4,000 individuals previously asked to prove their citizenship that they do not need to respond and will not be removed from the rolls. He needs to do both.

In Florida, Detzner announced he will still pursue removals of those persons that SAVE could not verify as citizens. What's the problem with this? In the words of Ann McFall, the Republican supervisor of elections for Volusia County:

"We're 55 days in front of a huge election. It just doesn't help us whatsoever. I went through the SAVE training today -- it's the most convoluted thing you've ever seen in your life. It's awful.

"Even if they got the list of names to us tomorrow, there wouldn't be time. That person has due process."

At the end of the day, that is the message other local election officials and citizens need to take to heart and to the polls. Gessler and Detzner have told their story and nobody is buying it. In the world's greatest democracy, the rules cannot be manipulated by politicians at the last minute, everyone must be treated equally and fairly, and no eligible citizen should be denied the right to vote.

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