Two days after Florida reignited the fight to purge suspected noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls and announced plans to refer 36 noncitizens who have allegedly voted to prosecutors, outside groups are preparing for an intense battle.
At least two voting rights groups and the Justice Department have lawsuits pending against the state. But one organization, The Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, has a date with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and a federal judge Monday. The National Voter Registration Act bars states from engaging in certain types of voter purges 90 days before a federal election. On Monday, the Presidential Election will be just 36 days away.
Advancement Project lawyers will ask for a court order blocking the state and any willing county administrators from removing voters from the rolls. In the event that the court action fails, Advancement Project staff is already busy asking county election administrators not to comply with the state’s efforts. The group will also offer all 198 people on the state’s newest suspect voter list legal help, said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection for The Advancement Project.
What happens in Florida could chart a new course for American elections and the very meaning of citizenship, voting rights advocates say. More than a dozen states may also be preparing to launch purges akin to Florida’s based on a pervasive idea advanced mostly by Republicans that the election system is under siege by foreign interlopers and others. Scant evidence exists.
“What’s really at stake is a what our country is about,” said Culliton-Gonzalez. “ Are we going to have two classes of citizens where some people have to take an entirely different set of steps and actions, clear all sorts of hurdles to exercise our most fundamental and sacred right?”
The 198 people on Florida’s newest list of suspected noncitizens may have to spend as much as $650 to obtain the paperwork to prove they are eligible to vote, said Culliton-Gonzalez. Others will have to collect their own and their parent’s birth certificates. All of this would have to be done in the next 30 days.
Florida officials have consistently said that the state's voter purge project -- initiated by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner -- is a sincere effort to defend the integrity of the election.
“We have an obligation to make sure the voter rolls are accurate,” Chris Cate, a spokesman for Detzner, told The Huffington Post in June. “We are firmly committed to doing the right thing and preventing ineligible voters from being able to cast a ballot."
Earlier this year, Scott and Detzner said 182,000 noncitizens had been flagged on the state’s voter rolls. But reporters and activists found hundreds of natural-born and naturalized U.S. citizens among them. Additionally, advocates found that a hugely disproportionate share of the flagged group was Latino or black.
The lists reflect, in part, modern immigration patterns. But, because voters of color tend to lean heavily toward the Democratic Party, Democrats and voting rights groups also view the purges as a specifically partisan effort to tip the November election.
This summer, county-level election officials in a few sections of the state sent letters to nearly 3,000 voters demanding proof of citizenship within 30 days, or the voters would face removal from voter rolls. The letters also warned that casting a ballot when ineligible constitutes a felony.
Florida developed the latest list of 198 suspect voters after a protracted battle with the Obama administration to access a Department of Homeland Security database known as SAVE. Fifteen states have since requested the same, said Culliton-Gonzalez. Of these, homeland security has granted Colorado access.
Florida and other states have insisted that access to SAVE will produce more accurate lists of suspect voters and remove a serious threat. If Florida’s estimate that at least 36 of the people on the latest list have voted is correct, then .00031 percent of the state’s electorate has committed a form of in-person voter fraud.
But just hours after the new list became public late Wednesday, the Miami Herald discovered problems with the roster. One man said he already provided election officials proof of his citizenship earlier this year after showing up on one of the state’s lists. Some of those listed said they are natural born citizens. Others said they are not citizens but had never voted as the state’s latest list indicates.
Another woman, described as a 73-year old Filipino immigrant not affiliated with a party, said she and her husband have voted many times. The woman, Anita Caragan, said that she first registered to vote 35 years ago while living in Norfolk, Va. and renewing her driver’s license, the Miami Herald Reported.
The woman’s story seems to jibe with a conservative meme: a 1993 law known as Motor Voter has pushed large groups of ineligible voters onto the rolls because it allegedly requires staff working at state driver’s licenses agencies and social assistance offices to register all their clients to vote.
The problem: the Motor Voter law did not exist in 1977 when Caragan said that she registered while renewing her license. At the time, Virginia was home to some of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country, the American Prospect has reported. Once Motor Voter went into effect, it required workers to ask citizens if they would like to register.
Caragan did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday.