Florida will defy a federal warning to stop purging people the state suspects aren't U.S. citizens from voter registration rolls.
Despite a Justice Department letter, objections from county elections officials and evidence that a disproportionate number are voters of color, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office planned to continue scrubbing the election rolls, a spokesman said Friday. Gov. Rick Scott (R) ordered the search for potentially ineligible voters.
“We have an obligation to make sure the voter rolls are accurate and we are going to continue forward and do everything that we can legally do to make sure that ineligible voters cannot vote,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Detzner. “We are firmly committed to doing the right thing and preventing ineligible voters from being able to cast a ballot. We are not going to give up our efforts to make sure the voter rolls are accurate."
Justice Department officials declined to comment on Florida’s plans.
In a letter issued late Thursday, T. Christian Herren Jr., who leads the Justice Department voting section, told Detzner that the state's plan to review the status of the 2,600 suspected non-citizens and purge them if the voters fail to prove citizenship appears to violate the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.
Detzner has said previously that his agency has identified 182,000 voters who were not citizens by comparing voter rolls and driver's license databases. The state's driver's license data contains some citizenship information. Beginning in April, Detzner asked county election officials statewide to contact 2,600 suspect voters by mail. The letters said those who failed to provide evidence of citizenship within 30 days would be purged. They also warned that casting a ballot when ineligible constitutes a felony.
"The Florida Secretary of State is being recalcitrant," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of The Advancement Project, a Washington-based voting rights advocacy group that last month asked the Justice Department to investigate. "He wants to move forward despite federal notice of illegality and supervisors of elections' refusal to purge voters. He should just quit it."
Florida is among a small number states, mostly in the South, covered by Section V of the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that reinforces voting rights guaranteed in the Constitution. In five Florida counties and other states, election officials have a history of such of egregious and creative efforts to suppress black and Latino votes that any changes in voting–related policy or procedure must first be approved by the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges, Browne Dianis said.
Florida failed to get clearance for its purge or its methods to identify the people the state suspects are non-citizens.
Voting rights advocates have also pointed out the state motor vehicles database is an unreliable way to determine the citizenship of voters, because many people become citizens between license renewals.
Moreover, in an initial list of nearly 3,000 voters the state suspects are non-citizens, blacks and Latinos were disproportionately represented, a 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 National Voter Registration Act requires states to make every effort to monitor and maintain clean and accurate voter rolls, Browne Dianis said. But the same law also says efforts must take place 90 days or more before a federal election begins. 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.
Florida interprets the laws governing voting differently, said Cate, the secretary of state's spokesman. And the state's efforts have already proven effective, he said. Cate pointed to Miami-Dade County, where warning letters were first mailed to suspect voters.
Miami-Dade County election officials issued 1,570 warning letters, said Christina White, the county chief deputy supervisor of elections. Of these, 13 people responded indicating they are not citizens and have been removed from the voter rolls. One of the voters cast one ballot in 1996. Another voted once in 2000 and again in 2004. Their names will be forwarded to the state’s attorney’s office for possible prosecution as required by law, White said.
However, Miami-Dade County will not purge other voters from the rolls because of the large number of citizens included on the state’s suspect voter list. Nearly 450 voters who received warning letters provided proof of citizenship and another 35 have made plans to do so. About 1,000 voters have not responded, White said.
“The law says that the supervisor, only on a preponderance of evidence, should be removing people from the rolls,” said White. “We just didn’t feel that we have the preponderance of evidence that the supervisor needs to make a call on someone’s eligibility at this time that we haven’t heard from.”
Election officials in other counties around the state -– both Democrats and Republicans -- have questioned the state’s suspect voter list and have expressed indignation about the purge.
In Broward County, a 91-year-old World War II veteran was forced to provide proof of his citizenship in order to remain on the voter rolls. And in Seminole County, an election official tweeted a picture of himself with one man who received a warning letter. In the picture, the two men stood side by side, holding the suspect voter’s U.S. passport.
On Friday, a lawyer with the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections issued a memo suggesting that all 67 counties stop the purge until the concerns raised by the Justice Department are addressed by the state or a court order. The association is a trade group for county election officials.
State election officials in Colorado and New Mexico, states with significant Latino populations, have also launched efforts to identify and purge suspected non-citizens from voter rolls. Justice Department officials declined to comment Friday on those efforts.
"We all benefit when [voter] list maintenance occurs within the bounds of federal law,” said Myrna Perez, senior council at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “Nobody benefits form inaccurate voter rolls. But it’s also certainly the case that you have wildly different things happening not only from state to state, but sometimes from county to county.”
States should make their methods for identifying and purging voters known and give voters time to object or correct errors before an election, said Perez.
UPDATE 9:52 p.m.: This story was changed to include new information about the Florida State Association of Supervisors' advisory memo issued to county election officials Friday.