In the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers wrote that “all men are created equal.” As we celebrate Independence Day this week, Florida must remember this principle and protect the right to vote for all its residents. The state should start by stopping its voter purge, which threatens to remove thousands of eligible citizens from the rolls.
Nobody wants ineligible individuals on voter rolls. And Florida’s 67 independent Supervisors of Election work every day maintaining the voter database to make sure it is up to date and accurate.
Recently, however, the state initiated a highly flawed systematic purge that undermined those efforts, particularly in Miami-Dade County. Last Wednesday, a federal court denounced Florida’s alleged non-citizen purge program as one riddled with “major flaws” and “certain to include a large number” of the “tens of thousands of Florida residents [who] become naturalized citizens each year.”
Florida initially claimed more than 180,000 potential non-citizens were registered, a suggestion Judge Robert Hinkle found was “plainly wrong.” The state narrowed that list — using unknown criteria — to approximately 2,700, which it described as a “sample” before sending the names to the supervisors of election in order to notify the listed voters they might be removed as ineligible noncitizens. In Miami-Dade County alone, nearly 500 individuals responded to the notification with proof they were actually citizens.
Despite these problems, Judge Hinkle determined there was no need to prohibit the program because Secretary of State Ken Detzner “has unequivocally said he will not continue” it. But Florida’s promise is cold comfort if it intends to restart the program under the guise of a “new and improved” purge shortly before upcoming elections.
Given Florida’s repeated history of error-ridden purges, and its pending lawsuit seeking access to a federal database to help create a new purge list, there is good reason to keep close watch for Florida’s next move.
Large-scale purges aimed at removing ineligible voters often result in the disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters, particularly when done improperly. The court’s order shows just how much can go wrong when states try to purge the voter rolls — using faulty criteria — right before an election. Indeed, Judge Hinkle found Florida’s methodology for creating the list was so flawed it was “hardly surprising” the state “identified many properly registered citizens as potential noncitizens.”
Florida should know better by now. In 2000, the state targeted for removal at least 12,000 eligible voters. The state used faulty matching criteria that could confuse the records of eligible voters with felons if 80 percent of their last names matched.
In 2004, in an attempt to remove 48,000 registered voters from the rolls on the basis of felony conviction, the state wrongly identified thousands whose voting rights had been restored under Florida law, with a hugely disproportionate share being minorities.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Detzner last week, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Brennan Center for Justice called on Florida to ensure that no registered voters were removed from the rolls for simply failing to respond to a notice, and restore those who were. The state must also prevent any remaining confusion by notifying all supervisors and voters that the purge has ceased. And it needs to institute Election Day safeguards that will help registered voters mistakenly placed on the purge list to cast a ballot. Further, the state must release the complete criteria used to generate its list of potential noncitizens, so that proper oversight is possible.
As Judge Hinkle recognized, Florida does nothing to “protect the integrity of the electoral process” by pursuing a discriminatory and inaccurate purge program that could disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters.
As we enjoy barbeques, fireworks, and vacations this Fourth of July, Florida must not repeat mistakes of the past. The state must work to safeguard the fundamental right to vote for all its citizens.Elizabeth Pines is a director of the League of Women Voters of Florida. Jonathan Brater is counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice.