Florida’s Voter Harassment Campaign

Florida is locked in battle with the U.S. Justice Department over the state’s efforts to scrub its voter rolls.

At Republican Governor Rick Scott’s direction, the state cross-referenced driver’s licenses and voter registrations to compile a list of more than 180,000 Floridians it said were suspect. It then sent to county election supervisors a first cut of more than 2,600 registrants. They were to be notified by certified mail and given 30 days to prove their citizenship before being stricken from the rolls and barred from voting this fall. An analysis by the Miami Herald found the vast majority were, in fact, citizens (including 91-year-old Bill Internicola, a World War II veteran born in New York who was none too happy about his civic demotion).

Last week, a federal court in Tallahassee blocked the state from imposing new restrictions on voter registration, including a law requiring registration forms be submitted to state officials within 48 hours. The law previously had allowed 10 days for submissions. Florida was never able to explain why a two-day rush was suddenly necessary, particularly when voter registration is often conducted by volunteers.

On May 31, the Justice Department said the purge of voter rolls appeared to be illegal, first because it violates the Voting Rights Act and second because it is being conducted, contrary to federal law, within 90 days of Florida’s September primary election. Meanwhile, the state association of county election supervisors advised its 67 member counties to suspend the purge due to the high rate of errors. Miami-Dade County, for example, managed to find 13 registered voters who do not appear to be citizens; it also found almost 500 others who are. The Seminole County supervisor of elections, Mike Ertel, a Republican, posted a photo of himself on Twitter holding the U.S. passport of one targeted voter.

Why they’re going through all this trouble in the first place may seem mysterious. Despite vigorous efforts of fraud hunters, and aggressive work in more than a dozen states to encumber voting or registration, evidence of fraud remains vanishingly scarce. And the penalties for committing such fraud are already severe. The answer is these efforts aren’t really intended to root out fraud -- they’re intended to discourage voting.

Voter identification may well be the most polarizing matter in U.S. legislatures. In an amicus brief contesting an Indiana voter ID law, a group of historians and scholars calculated that from 2005 to 2007 at least 10 bills requiring voter ID were introduced by Republicans in various state legislatures. In the combined votes for the bills, 95.3 percent of 1,222 Republicans supported voter ID; just 2.1 percent of 796 Democrats did. The disparity is not a mystery. The laws will make it more difficult for some small but very real number of citizens -- almost all of them poor -- to vote.

Florida insists all would be well if only the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shared its database of people who have entered the immigration system. But some of those people, too, are U.S. citizens. The database was never devised to match up with voter rolls. In any case, given the Obama administration’s skepticism about the motives and legality of the purge, such help is probably not forthcoming.

The rush to eliminate voter fraud rests largely on a fallacy -- that illegal immigrants and others on the social and political margins are engaged in deliberate fraud; that those with the least social capital, least organizational capacity and the most to lose -- voter fraud is a felony subject to imprisonment and any illegal immigrant who commits it is subject to deportation -- are actively subverting the system. And that they’re doing it in such numbers as to sway an election.

“If you start focusing on this, it is pinpointed to the major urban areas, to the inner cities,” former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey told Fox News in 2010. Armey’s statement, for which he provided no proof and was asked for none, exposes the racial component -- which, because minorities vote disproportionately for Democrats, is also the partisan component -- of the effort better than anything we could say.

Undermining a citizen’s right to vote is an egregious political act. If Governor Scott wants to chase fraud, he should do so in a way that doesn’t make collateral damage of Florida voters. Unfortunately, collateral damage seems to be the point of the exercise.

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