Florida Should Avoid Misdeeds of the Past

May 21, 2012

Florida does not have a good track record with voter purges. In 2000, Florida’s efforts to purge persons with criminal convictions from the rolls led to, by conservative estimates, close to 12,000 eligible voters being removed because the state’s process was so imprecise that an eligible voter named John Michaels could be confused with an ineligible person named John Michaelson. In 2004, Florida’s purge had a blatant racial disparity. Now, in 2012, Florida’s Secretary of State recently announced new efforts to purge Florida’s voter rolls. The initiative purports to be targeting non-citizens and deceased persons for removal from the voter rolls, but because Florida’s past efforts purged eligible voters from the rolls, careful scrutiny is warranted to ensure eligible Americans will not be blocked from voting.

Clean voter rolls are very important. We all benefit when states undertake responsible list maintenance procedures. Because the fundamental right to vote is at stake when voter list cleansing efforts are undertaken, the process must be transparent, accurate, and under reasonable time frames, especially when the list maintenance effort is of the scale Florida is proposing.

Part of the problem with voter purges is that they happen inside someone’s office and outside the public eye. For example, Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a public release announcing the purge effort earlier this month, but the initiative started in early 2011. So far he has only revealed that election officials are working with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to cross-reference voters’ information contained in various databases. But the press report does not explain anything more to the public. How can we know the process is being undertaken carefully? How can a voter incorrectly removed be put back on the rolls?

This lack of transparency illustrates another problem: purges are not always undertaken with the accuracy and care that is required. For example, to identify deceased persons on the rolls, Florida officials compare voter information with federal Social Security files. But a simple comparison offers insufficient protection for voters. The Social Security Administration admits there are errors in its database — 14,000 people are improperly recorded as deceased each year — and typos, bad handwriting, similar names, and basic statistical principles can lead to mix-ups between eligible and ineligible voters.

Finally, the timing of purges is often a concern, as it is here because Florida will hold elections in just a few months. The risks of error and enormity of consequences make it critical that purges happen well before elections so that mistakes can be caught and corrected and voters reinstated with ample time to cast ballots that will count. There are reports that local election supervisors share the Brennan Center’s concern about the timing of these purges, which are heightened if it is true that supervisors received instructions to begin purging voters from the rolls with only a few months before the elections when state-level officials compiled initial lists more than a year before.

If there are bloated rolls in Florida or any other state, the solution is easy: modernize. Paper-based registration systems, in Florida and elsewhere, are inefficient, costly, and prone to inaccuracy. The Brennan Center has proposed model legislation for voter registration modernization that would increase the number of eligible voters and restrict ineligible voters with a much higher degree of accuracy. The proposed system electronically transfers registration information, enables secure online registration, ensures that a voter’s registration record travels with her when she moves within a state, and creates an opportunity at the polls to correct any glitches in the process. Numerous states have already adopted components of voter registration modernization, and Florida should follow suit.

What Florida should NOT do is undertake a hasty and ill-planned purge of its voter rolls.