Feds step in to protect Florida voters

Published June 2, 2012

It takes the federal courts and the U.S. Justice Department to defend democracy and protect Floridians from their governor and Legislature who are determined to suppress the vote. Now it should be clear even to Gov. Rick Scott that barriers to voter registration drives and the state's heavy-handed purge of the voter rolls are unconstitutional. The governor should start encouraging all Floridians to vote and quit putting up barriers to the polls that disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.

The federal backlash, coming in separate moves Thursday, is the most powerful rebuke yet of a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature bent on disenfranchising Florida voters by using measures that primarily marginalize African-Americans, Hispanics, poor people and other reliable Democratic constituencies. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle threw out restrictions on third-party groups that register voters, calling them "harsh," "impractical" and "plainly" illegal. Hours later, the Justice Department ordered the state to halt its purge of suspected noncitizens from the voting rolls, noting that effort also violates long-established federal voting rights.

The question of whether Scott and his fellow Republicans overreached is not even close. In tossing parts of the 2011 election law, Hinkle sounded incredulous about the lengths that Republicans went to erect new hurdles to voting. The 48-hour deadline for groups to supply new voter registrations to the state, he wrote, imposes a "perhaps virtually impossible" burden. "If the goal," he went on, was "to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work." He also blasted the measure for making no allowance for mailing registrations. And he wondered why the state imposed a range of new restrictions at all, pointing out that prior to the 2011 law, the elections process was "working well."

The Justice Department added its voice to the rising chorus of county elections supervisors who have balked at implementing the state's sloppy purge of the voting rolls. Several hundred voters who were named among the 2,600 suspected noncitizens on the state's blacklist have already provided proof they are citizens and eligible voters. This huge error rate renders the state database meaningless. Now state officials are trying to shift the blame for this half-baked effort by calling on the federal government to open citizenship records held by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The governor and the Legislature created this mess by going to the extreme to hassle voters and third-party registration groups. To their credit, many county election supervisors said enough; on Friday, an attorney for their state association called on the counties to halt the effort until state and federal officials resolve the dispute. The federal government was right to strike back hard against this assault on democratic rights. Now it's the governor's turn. Scott should ditch the witch hunt and put a sensible plan for checking the voter rolls on the table. Then he should call on the Legislature to repeal the restrictions in the 2011 law that are nothing more than tools to intimidate would-be voters.