In Florida, state officials are encountering stiff resistance to their efforts to take non-citizens off the voter rolls.
The Sunshine State’s recent history provides a compelling case for why voter rolls must be accurate: In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won the state by a mere 537 votes. So last year, when Florida officials realized there was a way to check voter rolls to make sure every voter was a citizen, they jumped at the opportunity.
Because the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles tracks the legal status of those who obtain driver’s licenses — i.e., whether the license holder is a citizen or legally present through a visa or some other method — officials were able to compare this list with the list of registered voters. It wasn’t a foolproof method: Someone could have been a legal alien at the time he obtained a driver’s license and yet could have become a citizen by the time he registered to vote years later. Still, the comparison between the voter-registration records and the driver’s-license records seemed like a reasonable starting point. And it revealed that up to 180,000 Florida voters were potentially not citizens.
But the state wanted a more accurate way of determining voters’ citizenship status. So last year, Florida asked the Department of Homeland Security for access to the department’s citizenship records, which have more current information. Despite repeated requests, the department has yet to give the state access, prompting Florida secretary of state Ken Detzner to write a letter to Secretary Janet Napolitano late last month, asking that DHS cooperate with Florida.
“Federal law expressly requires your agency to respond to state inquiries seeking to verify or ascertain the citizenship or immigration status of any individual within its jurisdiction for any purpose authorized by law,” Detzner wrote. “Additionally, DHS has recently stated that the SAVE database could be used for voter-registration purposes. . . . Yet after nine months of requests, we have not been granted access to that information or any other available DHS database.”
Meanwhile, Florida had sent letters to 2,600 voters notifying them that the state had reason to believe they were not citizens. If the voters were citizens, they could contact their local elections supervisor and provide proof of their citizenship. If they were not, or did not respond to the letter, it was up to the local elections supervisor to decide whether the person should be left on the voter rolls for now or not.
Detzner spokesman Chris Cate says there have been some instances of “people who are actually non-citizens contacting the supervisor of elections and saying, ‘Remove me from the rolls.’” In Miami-Dade County, for instance, the supervisor of elections “informed us of 13 people last week who had contacted her office and requested to be removed from the voter rolls.” “The last thing we want to do is remove an eligible voter from the voter rolls,” Cate stresses. “We’re not aware of anyone who’s an eligible voter that has been removed as a result of this process.”
But Detzner’s efforts have stirred controversy nonetheless. Florida Democrats highlighted the case of 91-year-old World War II veteran Bill Internicola, who received a letter asking him to verify his citizenship if he wished to remain a Florida voter. Several Florida Democrats serving in Congress, including current Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, signed a letter to Governor Rick Scott, requesting that the process be ended. “Providing a list of names of questionable validity — created with absolutely no oversight — to county supervisors and asking that they purge their rolls will create chaotic results and further undermine Floridians’ confidence in the integrity of our elections,” wrote the Democrats. Further fuel was added to the controversy when the Miami Herald released an analysis “of the list [of 2,600 voters that] found it was dominated by Democrats, independents and Hispanics.”
Last week, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Detzner, suggesting that Florida was acting illegally. T. Christian Herren, chief of the voting section of the department’s civil rights division, wrote that Florida needed to obtain approval before taking any such action in five counties that are “subject to the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
“Our records do not reflect that these changes affecting voting have been submitted to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for judicial review or to the Attorney General for administrative review as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” Herren wrote.
Additionally, Herren argued that Florida had violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which stipulates that “a state shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.” Florida’s primary is scheduled for August 14.
Florida has not yet replied to the letter, though the Department of Justice had requested a response by Wednesday. “We’re evaluating our options right now with the goal of having accurate voter rolls and upholding the integrity of Florida’s elections,” Cate says.
“We have a legal duty under both state and federal law to ensure the voter rolls are current and accurate,” he points out. “Removing ineligible voters from the voter rolls isn’t something we need to be told, isn’t something we just begin to do because it’s an election year. This is something that we do every year, year-round.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.