Politics

How Obama aided and abetted Scott’s voter purge mess

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration created a mess by trying to get rid of noncitizen voters.

And President Barack Obama’s administration helped him do it.

First, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security stonewalled the state’s noncitizen voter hunt for almost nine months by refusing Florida access to an immigration database. Then, on Thursday, Obama’s Justice Department ordered the purge to halt, in part because time had run out.

Ironically, DOJ’s order cited the so-called “Motor Voter” law, which actually calls on states to purge ineligible voters. One former DOJ lawyer and critic, conservative J. Christian Adams, blogged that the former Obama appointee in charge of the voting section announced early on that it would ignore Motor Voter’s purge obligation.

No enforcement

“We have no interest in enforcing this provision of the law,” he quoted Julie Fernandes as saying in 2009 when she was an assistant attorney general. “It has nothing to do with increasing turnout, and we are just not going to do it.” She has since left DOJ.

So to recap: The feds delayed and then said “time expired” under a law it selectively enforces.

And it’s not the only selective reading by the feds.

A 1996 immigration crackdown law gives Florida the right to access the Homeland Security database known as SAVE, which stands for “Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.” The federal law provides for “customer agencies to use SAVE for any legal purpose such as background investigations and voter registration.”

Mum’s the word

The words in that quote come from page 12 of Homeland Security’s own booklet on SAVE. So why won’t DHS heed the law and its own booklet and share its info?

It won’t say. “Talk to DOJ,” a Homeland Security official said in an email Friday

DOJ isn’t forthright, either.

Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for the voting section of the Justice Department said it wouldn’t comment on whether it would heed the call of liberal-leaning civil rights groups to stop Florida’s noncitizen voter purge. It also refused to answer questions about Motor Voter.

Hours later, about 8 p.m., DOJ sent its de facto cease-and-desist letter to Florida, and then forwarded the letter to a liberal blog.

Scott not blameless

None of this is to say the feds have reason to trust Florida or Scott or give them the benefit of the doubt, however.

Scott and his fellow Republicans tried to change elections rules with a new law, passed last year, that cracked down too hard on voter-registration rules and that removed Sunday-before-Election Day early voting when African Americans have flocked to the polls. A federal judge Thursday struck down major “onerous” parts of the law, which DOJ is fighting as well.

Also, Scott campaigned in 2010 for an Arizona-style immigration law that could require local police to start hunting illegal immigrants. Obama is challenging the law in court, and the Homeland Security Department probably isn’t too keen on giving Scott’s administration access to its immigrant database.

And overall, this former Confederate state has had a shameful history when it comes to race and voting. There’s a reason five Florida counties — Monroe, Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry and Collier — are specifically targeted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities.

Under the act, Florida needs federal permission before making elections-related changes. But Scott’s administration didn’t ask. So DOJ said Florida should stop the purge.

Florida’s noncitizen hunt will disproportionately hit minorities, specifically Hispanics, who are the larges immigrant group. They are, therefore, the most likely to be targeted in a noncitizen voter purge. A Herald analysis found 58 percent of those flagged as potential noncitizens are Hispanic.

Republicans, the whitest and least immigrant-heavy political party in Florida, were the least likely to face a purge.

So far, only 13 people have been purged in Miami-Dade — out of 505 people contacted — because they acknowledged they weren’t citizens. Of them, two might have voted. The overwhelming number, 492, were found to be citizens.

In all, Miami-Dade had 1,637 potential noncitizens identified of the nearly 2,700 found by the state. Miami-Dade, like the other counties, has halted the noncitizen hunt because of problems with the state’s list and after the DOJ told the state to stop.

DOJ noted that Motor Voter bans voter purges within 90 days of a federal election — that is, as of May 16 in advance of the Aug. 14 primary.

Scott might fight DOJ in court. Republicans are cheering him on, claiming there’s widespread “voter fraud.” Democrats are fighting back the so-called “voter suppression.”

The two sides can’t seem to compromise or even agree on the same facts.

While the Florida Division of Elections should clean the rolls, someone should have realized that — federal law or not — this is a big undertaking, it would be politically explosive and it should have been started a lot earlier.

Still, it’s doubtful Florida would be in this situation if DHS had given access to SAVE when Florida asked in October 2011.

Without SAVE, Florida relied on a motor-vehicle database that’s not updated when someone becomes a citizen. So those immigrants who become citizens and then register to vote can look like noncitizens via a simple database query.

Initially, Florida found 180,000 potential matches. It then greatly pared down the list to almost 2,700 by double-checking the information and then sending its potential noncitizen list to county elections supervisors.

Florida won’t release its original list of 180,000 potential matches. DHS won’t let Florida have access to SAVE. And DOJ’s not being straight with the mainstream press or, apparently, with its enforcement of federal law.

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” Obama wrote on the White House’s blog. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

But closed government, of the type shown by DOJ and DHS, helps promote messy voter rolls and partisan recriminations. And just in time for the presidential elections.

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