Florida, feds and elections supervisors continue war of words over voter purge

Jun 8, 2012

At the Leon County Supervisor of Elections Office, volunteers sign up to work with the League of Women Voters.

One of the group’s core missions is to help people participate in democracy by registering them to vote.  On Wednesday, about 15 volunteers showed up to become voter registrars. One of them is Katie Pospyhalla, a college student majoring in Middle Eastern studies who said people her age don’t care enough.

“And it’s something that I kind of hope to change. I kind of want to be like, ‘Wake up! These are your issues too and you need to get involved…nicely, of course,” she laughed.

A battle is heating up over Florida voters, but it isn’t political candidates who are fighting. Voter registration groups claimed victory in court as a judge struck down parts of the state’s election law last week. And this week, the state stands defiant against a federal order to stop purging non-citizen voters.

These fights over voting rights have pitted Florida Governor Rick Scott against the federal government and all 67 of the state’s supervisors of Elections.

Volunteers say they’re excited to be able to register voters for the first time since May of last year. That’s when the Republican-controlled Florida’s Legislature passed a bill requiring groups like the league to submit the names of every voter registered within two days, instead of the previously allowed 10 days.

That and other new rules prompted the League of Women Voters and two similar groups to sue the state of Florida. Then last week, Federal Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in their favor and struck down the two-day requirement and others that he said placed unnecessary obstacles in front of would-be voters.

Another part of the 2011 law shortened early voting periods. That is still being challenged in a separate court case.

 “Fifty-two percent of all the African-American votes cast during the last presidential election were cast at these early voting locations,” said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. He says votes cast during early voting periods can significantly affect an election’s outcome.

Also last week, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a letter to Florida’s Secretary of State, ordering him to stop trying to purge voters from state rolls so close to the upcoming election. Lane Wright, a spokesman for Governor Rick Scott, says the effort began shortly after the governor took office last year. Scott began trying to identify non-citizens who were mistakenly registered to vote in Florida.

“The governor, through the Department of State, wants to make sure we have clean and accurate voter registration rolls. We don’t want people who are ineligible casting ballots,” he said.

So, using Florida Department of Motor Vehicles records, the state identified about 180,000 questionable names. So far, it has just over 2,600 of them to supervisors of elections and directed them to require proof of citizenship from those in question. The effort had turned up about a dozen non-citizens, who were removed, Wright says.

But then came last week’s letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, saying Florida was violating federal laws by systematically purging voters within 90 days of an election. For Florida’s upcoming August primary, that deadline would have been on May 16.  But on Wednesday, Florida stood up to the Department of Justice with a letter of its own.

“Florida was well within its rights to remove people who were never eligible to vote in the first place,” said Wright.

But continuing the voter purge requires cooperation from the state’s 67 supervisors of elections, and they do not plan to comply with the state.

 “In fact the general counsel of the state association of election supervisors sent out a letter on Friday to all the supervisors of elections, directing us not to purge anyone from the rolls,” said Leon County’s Sancho.

For now, the state of Florida awaits a response from the Department of Justice, and the League of Women Voters is trying to make up for lost time by registering new voters anywhere they can before the August primary.