1. Opinion

Voter fraud effort smacks of voter suppression campaign

Published May 17, 2012

Only citizens can vote in Florida elections, and the state has an obligation to reasonably attempt to ensure the voter rolls are accurate. But the effort by state elections officials to identify registered voters who are noncitizens and remove them from the rolls is badly flawed and should be halted. Even if the intent of Gov. Rick Scott's administration is pure, the effect of this heavy-handed approach is to discriminate against Hispanics and Democrats and suppress the turnout of eligible voters.

Elections officials have identified about 2,700 potentially ineligible voters and sent them threatening letters, warning they have 30 days to prove their citizenship or be dropped from the voter rolls. An analysis by the Miami Herald found that Hispanic, Democratic and independent voters are the most likely to be challenged and face being disenfranchised. This has the markings of a voter suppression campaign dressed up as an anti-voter-fraud effort. Is it a coincidence that Republican elections officials in Colorado and New Mexico, which are also swing states with large Hispanic immigrant populations, are engaging in similar purges?

The Florida effort would be more defensible if elections officials were using a more accurate database to check citizenship. But the state is comparing the voter rolls to out-of-date records maintained by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The information reflects the last time residents obtained or renewed their driver's license or state-issued ID. Immigrants could have been naturalized in the interim. And the way the state matches voter records to state motorist data may be error-prone.

The state is working off an initial list of 180,000 potential noncitizen voters, which is now going through a second review using other databases to remove more false positives. Yet eligible voters still are being wrongly tagged as noncitizens. To use such a faulty screening process and then require legitimate voters to prove their citizenship unfairly shifts the burden of proof from the state to the individual. There is a reason some county supervisors of elections have expressed concern and skepticism about the integrity of the process.

State elections officials put part of the blame for inaccuracies on the refusal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to grant access to a better federal database of immigration records. But legitimate legal and practical issues have been raised about granting elections officials access to the federal database, and the state's sloppy approach should be halted until a better approach is found.

Florida does not enter this effort to remove noncitizens from the voter rolls with clean hands. In 2000, African-American men were wrongly denied the vote because of an error-ridden felon list. In 2004, another faulty felon list was compiled but was scrapped after a public outcry. In 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed legislation making it harder to conduct voter registration drives and to access the polls, disproportionately impacting minorities and Democratic-leaning groups.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Florida. There is plenty of evidence that Republicans in Tallahassee have made it more difficult for minority residents to register to vote and to remain on the rolls even if they are citizens. Even if the Scott administration's effort is well-intended, this is no fair way to ensure the voter rolls are accurate. Voter fraud is far less an issue in Florida than state elections officials interfering with the right to vote.