Here we go again.
As we gear up for another election, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has announced another attempt at purging the state’s voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens. Hearken back to last year’s voter-purge debacle, when the state’s list of targeted noncitizens began at 182,000, shrank to 2,600 and was further reduced to 198. The county supervisors of election stopped the effort shortly before voting started for the presidential election.
A mere 85 of Florida’s 12 million registered voters were removed from the rolls — hardly a matter requiring drastic action or worth risking disenfranchisement. Furthermore, it is unclear whether any of those individuals had actually voted.
The 2012 voter purge was marred by faulty lists, heavy-handedness from Tallahassee, a disregard for county election supervisors and a plethora of lawsuits and costly legal actions. Many supervisors were embarrassed to be part of the state’s sloppy and ill-timed efforts.
We can all agree that the voter rolls should accurately reflect only eligible voters and be free of duplicate registrations, deceased individuals, noncitizens, nonresidents and the imprisoned.
As part of their daily activities, the locally elected supervisors of election routinely update their registration information — adding new voters, changing names, addresses and party affiliation and removing individuals from the voting rolls.
Contrary to some political rhetoric, these county voter rolls are far from stagnant. According to voter-registration statistics provided by the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections, Florida has removed 6,585,085 voters since the Florida Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995. This represents an average of 366,000 voters annually.
Under Florida law, a registered voter may only be removed from the rolls if the voter requests in writing to be removed, if a supervisor of election receives notice from another state election official that the voter has registered out of state, if the voter is ineligible, or if the voter fails to respond to an address confirmation and there is no voting or voter registration activity for two subsequent general election cycles.
So despite the fact that the supervisors of election continually update their lists and there is no evidence of a problem with noncitizen registration, Gov. Rick Scott and his appointed secretary are launching a second attempt.
Why is this voter purge a priority for this administration and others throughout the country as another election approaches? A cynic might think it’s because promising to strip noncitizens from the voter rolls polls well with the tea party base. And indeed it does.
But it’s a call to action in search of a problem.
It also usurps the authority, the responsibility and the accountability of the supervisors of election. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act in June, paving the way for a renewed effort by the Scott administration.
Still stinging from the negative fallout from last year, Detzner insists this effort will be different. The list of potential noncitizens will be crosschecked against information from a federal database known as the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program (SAVE). Detzner promises to confer with the election supervisors during the process, including holding a series of hearings around the state prior to the start of the purge. The timing is slightly better than last year’s aborted purge, with more than a year before the next statewide election in a nonpresidential election year.
Nonetheless, there is still pushback from several of the supervisors and voting rights groups who worry eligible voters might be improperly removed. Some contend that SAVE is an inappropriate tool for this purpose.
With a spotty record of voter purges, questionable election law changes, and the use of the voter purge in party fundraising efforts, the trust quotient is predictably low.
This begs a few questions of Secretary Detzner:
• Are you dissatisfied with the list maintenance of the state’s 67 local supervisors of election?
• What evidence do you have that a problem of noncitizen registration exists?
• Is there any proof that noncitizens have voted?
• Isn’t it more likely that snowbirds might be registered in more than one state or that Floridians are registered in more than one county if they own multiple homes? Why no focus here?
• How will the list be formed?
If they are sincere in their desire to accurately identify noncitizens for voter registration removal, then the state should step away from the press releases and leave it up to the election supervisors to continue their current efforts while granting them access to SAVE.
That gesture would go a long way in preventing the appearance of political gamesmanship while achieving their stated goal.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.