1. Opinion

Governor trampling on voting rights

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Published Jun. 26, 2012

Like so many before them, Karla Vanessa Arcia, an American citizen originally from Nicaragua, and Melande Antoine, an American citizen originally from Haiti, came here, took the oath of citizenship and completed all the legal requirements to become naturalized citizens.

When they registered to vote they provided identification and swore, under penalty of perjury, that they are U.S. citizens. They and other plaintiffs in our lawsuit only want to exercise the most fundamental of all American rights: the right to vote.

They were faced with threatening letters and denial of their voting rights, and now in defense of his illegal and discriminatory voter purge program, Gov. Rick Scott is alleging that he must continue purging to protect us all. However, in Miami-Dade County alone, where most of the voters receiving the threatening purge letters live, of the 562 who responded within the short time frame of 30 days, 98 percent are U.S. citizens.

Florida's letters arrived to tell these U.S. citizens that they may be committing a felony and that they had to ask for a hearing to prove their citizenship within 30 days. Hundreds of other U.S. citizens across the state who received these threatening letters did not have time to respond within 30 days.

Like many busy Americans, they could not get proof of their citizenship in that short time frame, and like many other voters of color in Florida, they were intimidated. They include an elderly Cuban-American woman who no longer drives whose family members did not have time to take her to her local supervisor of elections within 30 days.

We have spoken to many others who did not answer the letters because they thought they might lose their citizenship. They came here from countries where voting rights are not respected, and are shocked and scared to be treated this way here. Like our plaintiffs Arcia and Antoine, Florida targeted them only because they are naturalized citizens who got a driver's license or state ID when they were lawful immigrants and became naturalized citizens later. As in 2000 and 2004, Florida is purging fully eligible U.S. citizens, the great majority of whom are voters of color, using intimidating means and sloppy data.

The story of Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old World War II veteran born in Brooklyn, N.Y., is equally shocking. He was "flabbergasted" to receive a letter from authorities questioning his citizenship, announcing that he would be committing a felony if he voted, and telling him he would have to seek a hearing to prove his citizenship within 30 days. He got on the noncitizen purge list because, once again, Florida's purge list does not even use proper means to identify the individuals on it.

The webinar issued by Florida instructing election officials to purge shows that only first name, last name and birth date must match for a person to be put on the purge list. It illustrates this by showing how the first name of "John" and the last name of "Smith," along with birth date, are used to ascertain identity.

So, Florida is targeting the best of Americans like Internicola, but according to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's op-ed (published June 22), the state will continue purging, despite federal law violations. The governor cavalierly states that those whose identity was mistaken, and the thousands of naturalized citizens on the list, can just vote provisional ballots — which Florida only counts at a rate of 50 percent.

Our country can do better. Federal voting laws provide clear protections against this type of harassment of perfectly eligible voters. They also protect against purges like the ones in 2000 and 2004, which discriminated against African-Americans, and the current purge, which directly discriminates against recently naturalized citizens, the majority of whom are Hispanic Americans. Our complaint in federal court in Miami demonstrates that Florida's purge impacts black, Latino and Asian citizens at a glaringly disproportionate rate. This purge violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which people marched and risked their lives to protect our fundamental voting rights — an act that applies equally to all U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Justice Department has also sued Florida, because officials are not allowed to purge within 90 days of a federal election, and the congressional primary is Aug. 14. Despite this, Scott won't stop. It is up to well-informed citizens and our federal courts to stop him from continuing to trample on the greatest of all American rights.