Local Election Officials Resist Florida’s Efforts to Purge Voter Rolls

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Florida election officials are trying to strike ineligible names from the voter rolls in a manner that critics warn is sloppy at best, and at worst, a partisan play ahead of what’s expected to be another close federal election.

The move, led by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, has caused an outcry among watchdog groups, and a rebuke from the Justice Department, which is charged with monitoring voter law nationwide.

But local election supervisors, about half of whom are Republican, have also balked, refusing to continue a purge that one suggested might be illegal.

In May, Florida’s secretary of state sent election supervisors a list of some 2,600 names that it said were non-citizens and should be removed from the voter rolls.

But upon examining the list, election supervisors found names of U.S. citizens, according to Vicki Davis, the elected president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “We had been told this list was a really clean list with which to work,” Davis, who is also a Republican, said.

Based on the letter and supervisors’ own concerns, a lawyer for the association recommended last week that local election officials halt the purge. “They know they need to discontinue working the list,” Davis said.

Among the concerns the Justice Department raised: A federal registration law prohibits states from altering the voter rolls 90 days before a federal election. Florida is holding a primary on Aug. 14, so the changes began within the restricted time frame, the Justice Department said.

Ann McFall, the Republican election supervisor for Volusia County, said the voter rolls were already carefully purged in 2011, well before the election. “Then this late-breaking, non-emergency, non-citizen issue has come before us within the 90-day time period. It just didn’t pass the smell test,” she said. She added, “I think I’d be breaking the law if I continued the purge.”

Why another purge now? “It’s close,” McCall said, referring to the upcoming presidential election. “It’s not that there’s fraud there. It’s not that mistakes happen. It’s just that it’s so close.”

Florida’s Secretary of State, Ken Detzner has defended the purge, saying the department was proceeding in a “cautious and responsible” manner and that it was working to ensure no one voted who wasn’t legally entitled to do so. “As Florida’s chief election officer, I am committed to ensuring the accuracy of Florida’s voter rolls,” he said in a recent statement. The secretary’s press office didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking a comment.

This isn’t the first time that Florida’s attempts to purge voting rolls raised questions. Ahead of the 2000 presidential election, Florida officials, led by then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, dropped as many as 12,000 eligible voters from the rolls in a purge intended to remove felons.

Four years later, election officials drew up a list of 48,000 names of purported felons to purge from the voter roles, though they later admitted that list was flawed. The purge was abandoned.

This year, Florida officials focused on removing non-citizens from the list. Officials cross-checked voter rolls with a list with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. But rights groups said this method was problematic because people aren’t required to provide proof of citizenship to obtain a driver’s license. Additionally, some people could have become citizens after obtaining a license, making them eligible to vote now. “It is over-inclusive, error-prone,” and unfairly targets Latinos, Haitian-Americans and other minorities, the Advancement Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group that tracks voter laws in Florida, said [PDF] in a letter to state officials.

There’s no national standard for how state election officials should maintain voter rolls. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting laws, said voter purges should be “transparent, accurate and well in advance of an election” to allow time to correct any mistakes.

Myrna Perez, the Brennan Center’s senior counsel on democracy, has analyzed voter purges nationwide and has found that most states could improve their methods. She says states should develop a uniform process for purging that involves double-checking lists drawn from other databases, such as lists of convicted felons or people who have died; ensures people have plenty of notice of when and how the purge will be conducted; and makes the purge lists publicly available to be contested. (Her comprehensive list of recommendations can be found here [PDF].)

In Florida’s case, she said, the purge seemed “sloppy,” given the reported numbers of citizens on the list of names to be removed. She said that holding a purge so close to an election sows confusion and doesn’t leave enough time to correct mistakes.

The Justice Department sent a letter this week ordering Florida to suspend its purge, saying it was in violation of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discrimination against voters, and bars jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from making any alterations to voting law without approval from the attorney general or the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. Those states include Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, Georgia and Alabama, and some counties in other states, including Florida.

Detzner pushed back, telling the Justice Department that the state is only trying to enforce the law — and that the federal government is standing in its way.

“No person has been or will be removed from the voter rolls without the fundamentals of due process: notice, an opportunity to be heard, and a determination by the county supervisor of elections that … evidence shows the voter is ineligible,” Detzner said in his Wednesday letter to Justice officials.

He noted that state officials had also tried to check their list of voters against the Department of Homeland Security’s database, but the agency so far hasn’t approved that request.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it was reviewing the letter.

In the meantime, Davis, the head of the election supervisors’ association, said she expected that officials would continue to hold off on the purge until they heard from the Justice Department. Davis wasn’t in office during Florida’s last two purges, but said: “At least we’ve gotten out in front of it this time.”

Voters at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/The El Dorado News-Times, Michael Orrell)
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