Republican Governor Rick Scott is restarting his high-profile purge of suspected noncitizens from Florida’s voting rolls in a move to appeal to core supporters that risks losing the backing of key swaths of the electorate.
Scott, seizing on the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a main element of the Voting Rights Act, has revived one of his administration’s most contentious missions: rooting out noncitizens from Florida’s list of 11.8 million voters.
While the move to fight fraud may burnish Scott’s appeal to Republicans, strategists say, it risks reviving memories of polling-place snafus in 2012 and alienating the state’s growing Hispanic population. The purge, which began before the 2012 election, stalled when several U.S. citizens were targeted and a Latino-advocacy group sued, claiming discrimination.
“For both parties, the discussion about purging the voter rolls is all about turning out the vote for next year,” said Susan MacManus, who teaches politics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Yet the risk remains for Scott, she said. “The voter fraud versus voter suppression debate is alive and well in Florida, and there’s no sign of it going away.”
The Supreme Court, with its June 25 ruling striking down the federal preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, cleared the way for several Republican governors to move forward with new voting laws. Some have done so, and Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina have all begun implementing voter-identification rules since the decision.
Critics say the laws are veiled attempts to suppress voter turnout among Democratic-leaning demographic groups, including Hispanics. Republicans and Tea Party supporters, who helped usher Scott into power in 2010, tend to back the tighter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud.
Scott, 60, said this week that the decision to restart the purge simply helps to “preserve the sacred right to vote” for citizens in Florida.
He’s already facing a political backlash as opponents use the opening for attacks. The purge effort was rejected by the state’s elections supervisors last year after several eligible voters were targeted just weeks before the November election.
Last year’s review, which began with about 180,000 names of suspected noncitizens who were registered to vote, was quickly reduced because of errors, first to 2,600 and then to about 200. In the end, just one person, a Canadian, was prosecuted for fraud as a result of the drive, said Gretl Plessinger, a state Law Enforcement Department spokeswoman.
Charlie Crist, a former Republican and Scott’s predecessor as governor who’s considering challenging the incumbent as a Democrat next year, said the new purge effort is ill-advised.
“It was a bad idea last year and it is again now,” he said by e-mail.
Crist, a constant critic of Scott’s handling of voting issues, made several television appearances last year blaming the governor for the long lines at polling places and delayed results that marred Florida’s 2012 elections.
Scott has stayed on message, sidestepping questions about the politics of purging voters before his re-election campaign.
“Every citizen that has a right to vote in our state and registers to vote, that vote should not be diluted by somebody that does not have the right to vote, by somebody who’s illegally voting,” he said Aug. 6 after a cabinet meeting.
Representatives from his press office didn’t respond to questions about the political risks of renewing the purge.
Though Scott rarely answers questions about politics, he is aware how the voter-fraud issue plays among his core supporters. Last year, during the height of the debate over the purge, Scott and Florida’s Republican Party actively promoted the effort, at one point using it for fundraising. Through a private e-mail address listed on Tea Party websites last year, the governor received hundreds of messages from supporters who told him to stand strong in his fight against voter fraud.
State party Chairman Lenny Curry declined to comment yesterday through a spokeswoman.
After President Barack Obama carried Florida last year in a re-election bid that featured lopsided margins among Hispanic voters, the Republican National Committee started a campaign to reach out to minorities.
Since then, Democrats have blasted the governor for vetoing a bill to help undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses. The purge effort offers another line of attack for those seeking to defeat Scott by painting him as anti-Hispanic.
“The optics, the messaging, and the timing of the voter purge are all awful for Republicans in Florida,” said Kevin Cate, a Tallahassee-based Democratic consultant who was Obama’s 2008 campaign spokesman in Florida.
“It’s an issue that got away from them in 2012, alienating the very demographics that Romney needed to stay competitive in Florida, and now they are back for round two,” Cate said, referring to Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Scott, first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has pivoted to the middle since Republicans were rebuffed at the polls last year. He endorsed an expansion of Medicaid enrollment under Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act and this year proposed the largest budget in state history.
Those moves have drawn the ire of Tea Party supporters, whose votes may be crucial for Scott’s re-election. Voter surveys have shown Scott’s approval ratings below 50 percent since his election and show him trailing Crist by at least 10 percentage points.
The University of South Florida’s MacManus said Scott’s push against voter fraud will be used to bring out Republicans in 2014, an election in which low turnout is expected with no presidential race.
Bob Duff, co-leader of South Florida’s Broward Tea Party, said his members fully support Scott’s voter review. He said that while liberals often bring up race when discussing voters’ rights, it never comes up in his discussions about voter fraud.
“If they’re trying to clean the voter records, and they’re trying to avoid voter fraud, it shouldn’t matter the race, color or ethnicity of the people who are identified,” he said.
After the Supreme Court ruling, which removed the requirement of federal approval of proposed changes in voting laws in certain states, the Latino advocacy group’s discrimination lawsuit against Florida was thrown out. That cleared the way for the renewed review of the voter rolls.
Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, told elections supervisors last week that the purge would rely on a more-comprehensive federal database of potential noncitizens, rather than the driver’s license records used in 2012.
The flaws in last year’s program spurred a backlash from elections supervisors, who were caught off guard by the push to alter registration rolls right before election season. A disproportionate number of those targeted by the state’s review list were Hispanic, while Democrats outnumbered Republicans.
Supervisors ultimately abandoned the effort because of flaws in the lists.
Brian Corley, the Republican election supervisor for Pasco County, said he will only participate in this year’s review if it’s free of political influence and errors.
“There were 198 people who were found to be ineligible out of a list of 2,700,” he said. That’s about 7 percent. “If the supervisors had not said, ‘Mr. Secretary, we’re standing down until we get reliable data,’ there would’ve been 2,500 eligible voters who were kicked off the rolls before Election Day.”