By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Updated May 31 at 2:30 p.m.
Two Florida counties are refusing to participate in Gov. Rick Scott’s scrubbing of the voter rolls because of inaccuracies in the list of suspected “noncitizens” the state is threatening to block from voting.
Hillsborough County — which has almost 700,000 registered voters — has decided to abandon its voting purge after finding that at least six local people on the list supplied by Tallahassee were in fact U.S. citizens in good standing. The county’s Supervisor of Elections Office had received from Tallahassee a list of 72 “noncitizens” in mid-April. The Elections Office sent each of those persons a certified letter saying they were ineligible to vote, and if they disputed that claim, they’d have to prove it.
When five of those people came forward with birth certificates and another with a passport proving they are citizens, the Hillsborough officials decided the whole enterprise was suspect. “At that point it was obvious it wasn’t very credible and reliable information, so we suspended any further action,” Craig Lattimer, the supervisor’s chief of staff, told the alternative weekly Creative Loafing:
In addition to the six voters who were able to prove to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office that the state’s database was incorrect, Craig Latimer says it’s possible other registered voters received the certified letter and threw it away.
One voter told him he’d done just that. When Latimer called him, the voter said that he was born in Canada and that when he was very young, his parents came to the United States and obtained citizenship. He became a citizen as well. “‘I served 12 years in the U.S. Navy,’ he told Latimer. ‘I threw your letter away.’”
Latimer said at that point he decided the SOE office would refrain from taking anyone else off the voting rolls.
[Update 3:45 p.m.: Latimer told FCIR that one person on the list was found to be a noncitizen and was scratched from the voter roll. But the fact that six people proved their citizenship showed that the list of 72 names "has just lost any credibility or reliability," Latimer said. He said his office will suspend its pursuit of those 72 people "until we get more information."]
And Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher has determined that the state’s list of 115 local voters to be purged is “not credible.” The former Democratic state representative has refused to send out any letters threatening to remove those voters from the rolls, ThinkProgress reports.
We need to make sure we have reliable and credible information, by a preponderance of evidence. We could prove that the information was not credible before sending letters and even the Division of Elections has admitted substantial flaws. I did not feel we had credible information and told them I wouldn’t send [any letters] until they could give me a better list.
This thing is not working out so well, we know the information [on which the state relied to flag these names] is very old. They [listed the voter's] last transaction date with [the Florida Department of] Highway Safety — in many cases, [the was 2000, 2002]. By now they probably have become citizens – I questioned immediately.
They are the first reported instances of Florida’s 67 counties refusing to participate in Scott’s purge of eligible voters — an effort that may see thousands of people deemed ineligible to vote in the November election.
Although state officials say the effort is aimed at combatting voter fraud, the list skews heavily toward Hispanics, Democrats and independents — raising widespread suspicions that it’s a politically motivated drive meant to suppress the vote and help Republicans.
Joy-Ann Reid put it neatly in an opinion piece in today’s Miami Herald:
An insidious trend has emerged over the last several election cycles, whereby the Republican Party, faced with looming demographic Armageddon, has found ever more creative ways to kneecap the opposing team. In shorthand: The game is that if you can’t convince people to vote for you, then reduce the number of people who are eligible to vote against you…
Smart Republicans understand that since their voters are failing to keep pace with the emerging majority of younger, more socially tolerant and more racially and ethnically diverse Americans, they will find it harder and harder to win national elections. Older, whiter voters tend to vote more consistently, lining up for midterm elections when the opposition tends to fade away.
Florida’s Republican Party is vigorously defending the purge. GOP Chairman Lenny Curry released a statement yesterday comparing the scrubbing of the voting rolls with police efforts to take drunk drivers off the roads:
“This past Memorial Day weekend, law enforcement put up checkpoints to ensure drunk drivers did not threaten the safety of fellow motorists. Undoubtedly, many of the drivers who were met by police were, in fact, not driving drunk. However, we accept the notion that on such a heavily traveled holiday, a few moments of inconvenience to law-abiding drivers is worth it if we can ensure safe highways.
“Similarly, officials in Florida are undertaking a methodical and reasonable effort to maintain the security of Florida’s voter rolls. While some who are citizens, and others who are not deceased, may be asked to simply participate in the verification process, thousands of these records do accurately reflect non-citizens and people who have died.”
It’s a badly flawed comparison, as blogger Alex Brown points out at ThinkProgress:
But, of course, police do not throw sober drivers in jail or take away their license. Curry’s metaphor would only make sense if Florida police randomly pulled over and jailed thousands of citizens, with little evidence they had been drinking, and then required them to show proof of their soberness before letting them out of jail. Officials in Florida are carrying out the purge by sending an ominous and legalistic letter to voters targeted as non-citizens that requires them to request “an administrative hearing to present evidence” in order to dispute the State of Florida’s determination or be removed from the voter rolls.
Moreover, the Florida voter purge disproportionately affects Hispanics and Democrats. Fifty-eight percent of the list of more than 2,600 potential non-citizens are Hispanic while Hispanics make up only 13% of Florida’s population, a fact that places Florida in likely violation of federal law. The Voting Rights Act not only forbids laws that are passed specifically to target minority voters, it also strikes down state voter procedures that have a greater impact on minority voters than on others
In the case of Hillsborough, Latimer said five people came to the office with their birth certificates proving they were born in this country. Another citizen came with a passport that also indicated U.S. citizenship.
The implications for the coming presidential race could be enormous. Florida’s Department of State has generated a list of 182,000 suspected noncitizens, taken from motor vehicle records. County elections supervisors, alarmed by the timing of the purge and already-apparent inaccuracies, pressed the state to be more careful about voters it is targeting. The state is soon to match its list against federal Homeland Security records in hopes of decreasing errors.
Once that happens, state officials say, they will press on. Chris Cate, a spokesman for the state Division of Elections, said in an email to the Miami Herald: “We won’t be sending any new names to supervisors until the information we have is updated, because we always want to make sure we are using the best information available. I don’t have a timetable on when the next list of names will be sent to supervisors, but there will be more names.”
Meantime, a group of Florida Democrats has sent a letter to Scott, urging him to halt the purge. They say it violates the National Voting Rights Act of 1993, which prohibits states from removing voters from the rolls within 90 days prior to a federal election. Florida held its presidential preference primary January 31, but the primary for House and Senate candidates will be held on August 14.
They asked Scott to “immediately suspend the purge of voter registration lists” in order to “ensure not one Floridian finds his or her legitimate voting rights callously stripped away.”
“Providing a list of names of questionable validity — created with absolutely no oversight — to county supervisors and asking that they purge their rolls will create chaotic results and further undermine Floridians’ confidence in the integrity of our elections,” stated the letter signed by Florida Democratic Representatives Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Corrine Brown and Kathy Castor.
Hastings said the state was engaging in “voter suppression” and using a “back-door poll tax” by not sending a stamped envelope to voters to mail back their proof of citizenship.