1. Opinion

Stop trampling voters' rights

Published May 31, 2012

The state's campaign to purge suspected noncitizens from the voting rolls is flawed beyond repair, and Tallahassee should shelve it and start over. Already, hundreds of Florida voters have stepped forward to claim the blacklists are inaccurate. Local elections supervisors in at least two counties have called the lists unreliable and suspended or slowed enforcement. Gov. Rick Scott should put a halt to this mess made by his Secretary of State's office and come back with a process that does not trample the rights of legal voters.

State and local officials have a responsibility to enforce the law and ensure that only citizens vote in Florida elections. But that is hardly a blanket defense for the backward-looking process that has created an error-riddled list of suspected sham voters. Of the 2,600 names the state flagged as potential noncitizens and sent to the counties, hundreds already have provided proof that they are citizens — and eligible. One is a 91-year-old Brooklyn-born man who was awarded the Bronze Star for fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Many others are long-time voters who said they were angry and confused about being wrongly singled out.

The state compiled its list by comparing voter rolls to out-of-date records maintained by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The data reflects the residency status the last time residents obtained or renewed a driver's license or state-issued ID. But the records do not capture immigrants who were naturalized in the interim. And apparently the records contain other errors that can produce false positives. Voters tagged by this system are forced to dig up proof to the contrary and provide it within 30 days to the local elections office, or face removal from the rolls.

Tampa's alternative weekly, Creative Loafing, first reported Wednesday that Hillsborough's elections office had suspended any further enforcement. Of the 72 names provided by the state, the county could confirm only one noncitizen; five people proved they were citizens. The office contacted a sixth person, who also was a citizen and had served in the Navy. He had tossed out the warning letter from the elections office in disgust. Had the county not contacted this voter on its own accord, he, too might have been removed. And therein lies the problem: Nearly all the voters in the Tampa Bay area who face removal have not been confirmed as noncitizens. They can be dropped simply for not having responded to the warning letters.

These skimpy standards are what led Hillsborough to find that the lists "were not credible or reliable," according to Craig Latimer, the supervisor's chief of staff. His office has suspended any further action on the list; Monroe County says it will not drop a voter from the rolls unless it can confirm noncitizen status. That's not only fair; it adheres to the obligation local election supervisors have under Florida law to not purge the voter rolls in an arbitrary or discriminatory fashion.

Supervisors across Florida should follow Hillsborough's lead and suspend an operation that puts the onus on voters to debunk a database already proven inaccurate. And the state should devise a better approach. There is no such thing as integrity in the rolls when the process for purging voters is not as exacting as signing them up.


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