In Florida, Bid to Cut Voter Rolls Is Set Back

By The New York Times April 3, 2014

Lizette Alvarez, THE NEW YORK TIMES

MIAMI — Gov. Rick Scott’s
effort to remove voters who are not American citizens from voter
registration rolls, a subject of continuing political controversy, has
suffered a one-two punch in the past week.

On
Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that Florida violated the
National Voter Registration Act in trying to “systematically” remove
noncitizen voters from the rolls within 90 days of the 2012 presidential
election. In the 2-to-1 decision, the judges said that the 90-day
provision existed for a reason: to protect citizens from being unfairly
denied their right to vote.

“Eligible
voters removed days or weeks before Election Day will likely not be
able to correct the state’s errors in time to vote,” the court ruled.

The
program to identify and remove noncitizens from the rolls prompted a
national outcry and several lawsuits in 2012 because it was riddled with
mistakes and was being pushed through months before the election. A
number of people on the lists, which were sent by the state to county
election supervisors, were, in fact, citizens (including the two lead
plaintiffs in the lawsuit).

Election
supervisors refused to continue the program, saying the lists, which
were created using a driver’s license database, were inaccurate. Only a
few voters out of thousands were found to be wrongly registered to vote.

“Election
integrity means making sure that legitimate voters aren’t wrongfully
removed from the rolls,” Michael Slater, executive director of Project
Vote, said in a statement, reacting to the appellate court ruling. “The
decision vindicates the important role the National Voter Registration
Act provides in protecting eligible voters from these kinds of
last-minute purges.”

But
even before this week’s ruling by the Court of Appeals for the 11th
Circuit — which weighed in only on the timing of the noncitizen removal
program — Florida’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, had decided to
temporarily suspend the program.

In
a memo last week to county election supervisors, Mr. Detzner said he
would revisit the project after the Department of Homeland Security
finished overhauling its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements
database. The overhaul is expected to conclude in 2015. The state
planned to use the database this year to crosscheck the citizenship of
voters.

The
temporary halt also came amid concerns from county election supervisors
who did not think the project was ready to be rolled out again. With
the midterm elections only seven months away, the supervisors expressed
concern that the federal database was not reliable enough to ensure the
accuracy of the lists and could lead to a damaging replay of 2012.

The
noncitizen voter project carries significant political implications for
Governor Scott, who spearheaded the effort and continues to support it.
The uproar surrounding the 2012 effort hurt his efforts to court
Hispanics, some of whom viewed it as anti-immigrant and an attempt to
suppress their vote. Hispanics were among the most likely to wind up on
the voter lists.

Mr.
Scott is running again this year, and Hispanics are a critical voting
bloc. A renewed voter purge, particularly one with flaws, would undercut
his attempts to win them over.

But
the governor has not given up on the project. Asked about it last week,
shortly after Mr. Detzner’s memo was circulated, Mr. Scott said the
integrity of voter rolls was paramount.

“You
know, my main concern is about the sacred right to vote,” he said. “The
national database is doing some changes. The secretary of state’s
office is working with them. So, they are working to make sure
everything is right. I don’t want anybody’s sacred right to be diluted.”

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