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Voter purge issue grows increasingly contentious in the battleground state of Florida

Longtime Floridian Eileen Selis knows what it’s like to get a purge letter from the state:

 “I was frightened. I’ve no reason to be, but you know, you get that, and you get a little scared.” 

Selis is 76. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1935. Her parents hail from New York and Pennsylvania. And She’s one of about 2600 people who have received similar letters. The move comes as the state attempts to verify the status of more than 180-thousand Florida voters it suspects of being non-U.S. Citizens.

Selis’ plight is something Governor Rick Scott says he can identify with. He too, knows what it feels like to be mistaken for another person, and told the story to WFLA-Radio in Tallahassee:

 “Oh, I don’t know how many years ago I had to vote provisionally, because they said I’d passed away.”  

In 2006, before he became Governor, Richard Lynn Scott was mistaken for a deceased Richard E. Scott. The two share the same birthday. Instead of purging Richard E…the Collier County elections office mistakenly removed Richard Lynn, now Governor Rick Scott. He says it was simple enough to correct the problem.

 “I said, here’s my driver’s license, I’m here, I’m really alive, and so they allowed me to vote provisionally. And then they went back and checked and said, actually, I was alive.”

Florida’s fight with the federal government over plans to purge the voter rolls hit a new high this week as both entities announced dueling lawsuits over the issue. The state is accusing the federal government of intentionally blocking its efforts, and the feds say the purge is unconstitutional. As the fight drags on, more people are weighing in on what is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in a battleground state.

Scott continues to defend the state’s voter purge and says if they are removed and show up to the polls, they can still vote by provisional ballot. He’s been on a media blitz all week defending the state’s purge efforts. In an appearance on CNN, he accused the federal government of stonewalling.

 “I have an obligation to enforce the laws of the land. You don’t get to vote if you are a non-U.S. Citizen. Homeland Security has been stonewalling to give us a database we’re entitled to. We’ve been asking for months, and it will make sure we do it the right way.”   

Florida and the federal government are locked in dueling lawsuits over the purge. The state says it’s entitled to a database held by the Department of Homeland Security that it needs to verify immigration status. It’s been requesting access the system for months. The federal government says the state hasn’t submitted the necessary documentation it’s requested—such as registration numbers which are found on immigration documents.

Scott says there are clear examples on why the purge is needed. Since the state started its efforts, it has identified about 140 illegally-registered non-U.S. citizen voters. At least 50 of them may have voted in prior elections. 12 people volunteered to be removed from the rolls.

The effort isn’t only facing pushback from the federal government: Lawsuits from a Hispanic voting group, the ACLU and others has been filed to block the state from moving ahead with the purge as well. And there’s also disagreement on the issue within the governor’s own Republican Party.

 “The perception we’re getting across the country is that a bunch of  Latino people just go out and vote after getting off the plane or the raft when they get here, and that’s not the case,” said Miami Mayor and fellow Republican Tomas Regalado in an Interview on NPR’s Tell Me More.  Regalado says the purge is scaring people away from voting. And he disagrees with the effort, because the people most likely to be purged from the list are Latino.

 “And I understand the Governor is trying to cater to conservatives, but this is not the way to do it. I don’t see thousands of non-citizens voting here in South Florida.”   

The issue has also reached up to Congress. In a floor speech on the senate floor, Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson called the purge effort, along with controversial new elections law, an attempt at voter suppression.

 “What they ought to do is ensure the credibility of our voter rolls, not suppress citizens from voting under the fiction of some perceived fraud,” he said.

Nelson’s words were slammed by state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry, who in a written statement, accused Nelson of siding with “liberal special interests”. There are more than 11 million registered voters in Florida. The state is trying to verify whether 180,000 of them are actual citizens. The federal government says it’s against the law to carry out a purge so close to the August 14th primary election.



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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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