06/13/2012 02:26 pm ET

Florida Voter Purge Is Latest Showdown Between Rick Scott And Voting Rights Advocates

On the same day that Rick Scott was elected governor of Florida in 2010, voters in the Sunshine State also voted on changes to the state's constitution that would make it harder for lawmakers to carve up districts in a way that favored one party over another, or that would deny racial or language minorities "equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice."

The amendments, known as the "fair district amendments," were backed by the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the ACLU, and were endorsed by the state's largest newspapers. They passed overwhelmingly, garnering 63 percent of the vote.

But in January 2011, just a few days after Scott officially took over as the state's chief executive, he abruptly stopped the amendments from going into effect setting off a protracted legal battle.

While Florida has been no stranger to electoral controversy, the battle over who gets to vote and how has become increasingly pitched under Scott. The governor has said that he is attempting to keep people who shouldn't be voting from casting a ballot, but little evidence has been presented that voter fraud is a problem. There have been only 178 cases of alleged fraud in the state since 2000. "It's just not widespread," Vicki Davis, the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, told the Orlando Sentinel last week.

But that hasn't stopped the Scott administration from proposing or passing an array of new rules that could have huge implications for black and Latino voters. Even before the recent voter purge that many have criticized as discriminatory, sloppily administered and illegal, voting rights activists say that Scott's administration has made Florida one of the most difficult places for citizens to cast a ballot -- or to cast a ballot that might actually be counted.

"[Florida] certainly leads the country in making it harder for people to vote," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. "In terms of the sheer numbers of obstacles, and the sheer number of voters in particular, Florida wins that dubious distinction right now."

"There is a piling-on because the Supreme Court has said that it's legitimate for a state to protect against voter fraud even if it doesn't have a voting fraud problem," she said. "We already do a pretty good job with our existing protections in preventing voter fraud because it almost never happens."

Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, reformed the state's clemency rules to restore the voting rights of many ex-offenders automatically upon completion of their sentences. But just a few months after Scott stopped the redistricting amendments, the state's parole and clemency board quietly overhauled the rules for felon re-enfranchisement. Under the new rules, felons must wait either five or seven years, depending on the crime for which they were convicted, and then submit an application to a board that decides whether or not to restore their rights.

Johnson said that for felons, getting the right to vote back is unlikely. "It's practically impossible, like being struck by lightning four times in the same day," he said.

"The backlog of voter restoration candidates climbed to over 100,000," said Baylor Johnson, a spokesperson for the Florida ACLU. "That means over 100,000 people who have done everything right -- and they're still stuck on this backlog."

Last year, the state also quietly introduced a law containing a suite of new rules on voter registration drives, which made it so onerous for groups like Rock The Vote! and the League Of Women Voters to register new voters that they simply stopped trying to do so. (African-American and Latino voters are twice as likely to register to vote this way, according to the Brennan Center, which represents the Florida League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote in their legal challenge to the law.) The rules required groups to turn in voters' applications to the state within 48 hours, which, among other things, made it unclear how to conduct registration drives on weekends. If the groups fail to comply, they faced stiff fines.

The state also reduced the number of days allotted for early voting, and eliminated the Sunday before Election day. Those eliminations are likely to have serious consequences for black voters, as more than half of the state's black voters voted early in 2008, and many cast their ballots after church services as part of initiatives like "Souls To The Polls." (About a third of all of Florida's Sunday voters in 2008 were black.)

The state also changed the rules governing Election Day. Voters who have moved or changed their names will no longer be able to update their information on Election Day, but will have to file provisional ballots -- which will be reviewed after the election and may or may not ever be counted. In the 2008 election, only about half of the provisional ballots submitted in Florida were ever counted, and the percentage counted varied by county. About a third of the provisional ballots cast in Miami-Dade County were counted, while only six percent were counted in Broward County, two of the most populous and heavily Democratic counties in the Sunshine State.

"[Provisional ballots] only get counted when the election is in question," Johnson said. "There are only certain situations that trigger those."

Late last month, though, a judge placed a temporary hold on the provisions that affect voter registration drives. "If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work," the judge wrote. "Otherwise there is little reason for such a requirement."

The judge let the other parts of the law, like the restrictions on early voting, remain in effect.

It isn't clear just how many people have been affected by the new rules, but The New York Times found that 81,471 fewer voters had registered to vote since the rules went into effect in May of 2011.

Still, voting rights activists like Weiser and Johnson say they are hopeful that they can blunt the impact of the new restrictions or even overturn them.

"I'm disappointed that the state continues to put us in the position of having to defend the backbone of our country, which is fair and open elections," Johnson said. "But I'm optimistic that the courts will understand and continue to protect the voting rights of minorities and make voter suppression tactics illegal."