Civil rights, voting groups file suit over Florida voter purge

This article appeared in the LA Times on June 19, 2012.

By Morgan Little

WASHINGTON -- The lawsuits over Florida’s voter purge program continue to fly, with a group of civil and voting rights organizations joining the fray against Gov. Rick Scott’s efforts to identify non-citizen voters.

Filing suit in a Miami federal court Tuesday, the coalition contends that the initiative violates the Voting Rights Act because it discriminates against minorities, who account for 87% of those under investigation, according to a Miami Herald study. The suit also contends that the purge takes place within 90 days of a federal election, which is illegal. Florida’s congressional primaries on Aug. 14 fall within that 90-day window.

“While counties have an obligation to clean and update voter rolls, they also have an obligation to follow the law in doing so. If there are people on the rolls improperly, there is a legal process to remove them. Unfortunately, Florida’s current program does not follow the law,” said Ben Hovland, a senior counsel with the Fair Elections Legal Network. The network is part of the group filing suit against the state.

“We see this purge as part of a continuum of attacks on immigrants that could impact this community’s confidence that their votes this election will be counted,” said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, another plaintiff in the case.

But the office of Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner contends the suit’s allegations are false.

"It is ridiculous to suggest that our process to identify and remove voters is in any way discriminatory," Communications Director Chris Cate said. "The only criteria we are concerned about is whether or not someone is in fact ineligible and if so they should not be allowed to cast a ballot."

The voter purge has been mired in controversy since its inception, with the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security also involved in suits with Florida. The state, which originally wanted access to data from Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, was rebuked and ended up basing its investigations on information obtained from its own Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

A majority of counties in Florida have ended their efforts to enforce the mandate, citing concerns with the validity of the data used to identify voter fraud, though two counties remain unmoved. Out of the 2,700 individuals highlighted in the investigation, just 40 have been discovered to be non-citizens so far.

The continuation of the purge has drawn a lawsuit from the Department of Justice, which alleges it violates the National Voter Registration Act as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Florida responded to with a lawsuit of its own, aimed at Homeland Security for its refusal to share information.

“As one would expect with a new program that has not previously been tested against real-world information, your program has critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse eligible voters,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez wrote in a letter directed to Detzner.

Scott has shown little inclination to back down in the face of increasing scrutiny over his efforts.

“I have an obligation to enforce the laws of our land. You don't get to vote in Florida if you're a non-U.S. citizen,” he said on CNN’s “Starting Point.”


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