Florida, with a history of purging voters from the rolls before presidential elections, is doing it again. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports: “In 2000, Florida’s efforts to purge persons with criminal convictions from the rolls led to, by conservative estimates, close to 12,000 eligible voters being removed” from the rolls. After the agonizing recounts, the Supreme Court stepped in and declared George W. Bush the victor in Florida by 537 votes – and President of The United States. Now, Florida, the swing state with the most electoral votes, 29, is experiencing a new basis for purging the voter rolls – “noncitizens”.
Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, initially claimed there were 180,000 possible non-citizens on the voter rolls. That number was whittled down to 2,700 names within counties, followed by letters sent out to the men and women. Bill Internicola, a resident of Broward County, received his letter from the supervisor of elections telling him that the office “had information from the state of Florida that you are not a United States citizen, however you are registered to vote.” Internicola, who is 91, was born in Brooklyn and fought in World War II, winning the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge. He called the county supervisor, but was required to produce his discharge papers to prove his citizenship.
The Miami Herald reported that in Miami Dade county, 385 people were verified as citizens and only ten were ineligible or asked to be removed from the rolls. The Herald’s analysts dug deeper and found the people on the list were mostly Hispanic (58 percent), black (14 percent), Democrats or independents. Very few Republicans or whites were on the non-citizens list. Florida’s Republican Party Chairman, Lenny Curry, defended the search for non-citizens by attacking Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, who “asks our public servants to ignore the threat to electoral integrity.” The Brennan Center has refuted the threat argument, documenting voter fraud examples nation wide as “extremely rare” and comparable to one’s chance of being killed by lightening.
On June 1, a letter from the Justice Department told Florida to stop searching the voter rolls and purging voters, since the state appeared to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act of l965. The Act requires Florida, and other states with histories of racial or ethnic discrimination, to submit any changes affecting voting either to the federal court in Washington or to the attorney general. Florida had not met either of the requirements. Also on June 1, a federal judge in Florida ordered the state to stop enforcing several provisions of a law passed in 2011 that changed election rules as unfairly limiting registration drives. After the law had been passed, The League of Women Voters suspended their normal drives because of the requirement to submit new voters’ forms within 48 hours or pay a fine. It is estimated that at the same time before the 2008 presidential election, approximately 80,000 new voters had registered in Florida. The 2011 Florida law also cut early voting from 14 to 8 days and eliminated the Sunday before election day, called “souls to the polls” by African American churches.
Most significant as a means of suppressing voters’ ability to cast their ballots have been the Photo ID laws passed since 201l. After the midterm elections of 2010, a dozen states with Republican controlled legislatures passed laws that required ID. Six states required photo ID: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota. In 2012, five states passed “strict” government issued voter ID laws: Wisconsin, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Kansans must present proof of citizenship before they can register to vote, such as a birth certificate. Then they are required to show a government issued photo ID at the Polls. An estimated 620,000 Kansans who do not have that photo ID stand to lose their right to vote. Yet there has been only one prosecution for fraud in Kansas in the past six years. Wisconsin refuses to recognize student photo ID cards, even those issued by the University of Wisconsin. South Carolina and Texas estimate that they have over 800,000 registered voters between them who may not have acceptable forms of photo ID. In Texas, licenses to carry concealed handguns would be acceptable as ID to vote, but not student ID cards.
The Brennan Center analyzed 19 ID laws that were passed in 14 states. Their report concluded that the new laws, “could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” This number, they note, is “larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.” Earlier surveys from the Brennan Center found that eleven percent of citizens, 21 million people, do not have current photo ID. That number breaks down to 15 percent of low-income voting age citizens, 18 percent of young eligible voters, and 25 percent of black eligible voters. Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center, warned, “This year there’s been a significant wave of new laws in states across the country that have the effect of cracking down on voting rights. It is the most significant rollback in voting rights in decades.”
On June 11, Florida filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to gain access to a federal immigrant database that the state had been requesting since September. Governor Rick Scott said in a television interview, “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.” The next day, June 12, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Tallahassee, escalating the legal battle. The suit, calling Florida’s list “outdated and inaccurate”, said the Justice Department must approve any changes in how voters register under the Voting Rights Act. It also said that Florida cannot remove voters 90 days before an election, with the state’s primary set for August 4. Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said, “The Department of Justice has an overriding interest in protecting the rights of eligible voters to register and vote free from unlawful burdens, while at the same time ensuring that ineligible persons do not register and vote in federal elections in violation of the laws.”
As the opposing legal cases move forward, Bill Internicola and all U.S. citizens who reside in Florida will know that the United States government is acting to make sure they are able to vote in the November elections.
Joyce S. Anderson is the author of “Courage in High Heels,” “Flaw in the Tapestry,” “If Winter Comes,” “The Mermaids Singing” and her new book, “The Critical Eye.” She can be reached at JSAWrite@aol.com.