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State Legislatures Wind Down, Purge Programs Pick Up

Purge plans in Florida and Colorado will cause confusion and chaos for voters and local election officials, and wrongly deny some eligible citizens their right to cast a vote that counts.

  • Diana Kasdan
August 27, 2012

Crossposted at The Huffington Post

Last week Florida and Colorado both announced they are pushing forward programs to remove registered voters believed to be non-citizens in advance of November 6. Eleven more states have indicated interest in doing the same. Exactly how this will all play out in less than 80 days is a big question. But whatever happens, it will cause confusion and chaos for voters and local election officials, and wrongly deny some eligible citizens their right to cast a vote that counts.

This recent uptick in efforts to purge the voter rolls is the latest example of politicians and political operatives manipulating the rules to their own advantage to protect their own interests, not the rights of voters.

Of course non-citizens, or any other ineligible persons, should not be on the rolls, and states should make sure only eligible voters cast ballots. This is done through regularly scheduled list-maintenance activities. But a last-minute purge creates a far bigger problem, not a solution. It threatens thousands of eligible voters with removal; intimidates and confuses voters; and undermines the integrity of our election system. Congress anticipated the risk of such partisan shenanigans on the eve of an election. That is why, under federal law, during the 90 days before a federal election, there is a “quiet period” when election officials cannot carry out systematic removal programs.

As usual, that isn’t stopping Florida. Florida originally created a list of tens of thousands of voters to purge from the rolls. It was so inaccurate even the State itself admitted it was unreliable. Within weeks of rolling out that program, 500 voters confirmed their citizenship, including Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old World War II veteran who was born in Brooklyn. Despite this fiasco, Florida is preparing a new list of registered voters to check against the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program—which tracks the status of non-citizen aliens legally residing in the country. It will then send them removal notices.

Colorado is taking a different tact. It sent out notices to thousands of voter who presented a non-citizen document when obtaining a state driver’s license, including those who have been naturalized for years. The notice “asks” the voter to affirm citizenship on an enclosed form to “resolve doubt about your registration.” It says nothing about when the response should be sent or what will happen if a response is deemed insufficient or not received in advance of the election.

Florida and Colorado insist their procedures are carefully calibrated to avoid wrongful removals. That might be convincing if they didn’t have such bad track records. Both have a history of inaccurate purges— especially this close to an election. In 2000 and 2004, Florida’s target was persons with past criminal convictions. In 2000, Florida wrongly identified, by conservative efforts, at least 12,000 eligible voters, causing thousands of wrongful removals. In 2004, thousands of the 48,000 registered voters targeted for removal were in fact eligible to vote. And in 2008, Colorado illegally purged up to 31,000 voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election using faulty matching criteria.

At the end of the day, no matter what database or programs states use to remove voters, a dragnet approach risks throwing eligible Americans off the rolls. And intimidating and confusing notices like those sent out in Colorado and Florida will leave some eligible voters, especially newer citizens, unsure of their right to vote and dissuade them from showing up on Election Day.

In the last two legislative sessions the nation saw a wave of restrictive voting laws from state legislatures. In response, the public, the courts and the federal government all pushed back because they are unfair and deny some Americans the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. The current surge of last-minute verification and removal programs is no different: They unfairly change the rules of the game at the last minute, suppress the vote, and most likely violate the law.

Election officials have plenty left to do to prepare for the November elections. But hastily removing voters from the rolls and intimidating legitimately registered citizens is not one of them. It’s time for politicians and partisan players to step out of the way and let voters have their say.

Diana Kasdan is Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School