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Florida Should Avoid Misdeeds of the Past

With Florida’s bad track record on voter purges, state officials must be transparent and accurate in their latest efforts.

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.