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United States v. State of Florida

The Brennan Center for Justice, the League of Women Voters, and the League of Women Voters of Florida submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the Department of Justice’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s voter purge.

Published: June 27, 2012

The Brennan Center for Justice, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and the League of Women Voters submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the Department of Justice’s lawsuit challenging Florida’s voter purge, United States v. State of Florida. The brief explains how the state’s current effort is similar to past problematic purges, which led to wrongful removal of eligible voters from the rolls and voter disenfranchisement.

Florida’s voter purge violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 because it has occurred within 90 days of a federal election (the state’s primary is in August). Secretary of State Ken Detzner disputes this claim, but the brief clarifies the proper reading of the law.

Florida’s purge list has shown to be rife with errors, and many local election officials warned from the start it was inaccurate. This flawed list was used to send purge notices to hundreds of eligible citizens, disproportionately Hispanic and members of other minority groups. Among them was Bill Internicola, a Brooklyn-born 91-year-old WWII veteran, who said he was “flabbergasted” when he received such a letter. The Department of Justice sued Florida, asking the state to stop the purge because it violates federal law.

This isn’t the Sunshine State’s first controversy with purges. In 2000, Florida targeted at least 12,000 eligible voters for removal from the rolls. Registrants were purged from the rolls if 80 percent of the letters of their last names were the same as those of persons with criminal convictions, according to the brief. This led officials to remove Reverend Willie D. Whiting Jr. from the rolls, who, under the matching criteria, was considered the same person as Willie J. Whiting, a convicted felon.

In 2004, Florida planned to remove 48,000 “suspected felons” from its voter rolls even though many of those identified were in fact eligible to vote. The flawed process generated a list of 22,000 African Americans to be purged and only 61 voters with Hispanic surnames, despite Florida’s sizable Hispanic population. Only due to intense pressure from voting rights groups did state officials stop their plan of using the purge list.

The Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters of Florida also urged Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to halt the purge, writing a letter detailing critical problems undermining the reliability and legality of its purge program.

To the extent it has been disclosed, Florida’s data-matching methodology appears inadequate and error prone. To compile its purge list, the state used information from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. This database does not track citizenship status and contains outdated information that can wrongly indicate an eligible voter is a non-citizen, such as a voter who became a citizen after applying for a driver’s license, the letter explained.

Reports also indicate Florida’s purge initiative disproportionately impacts new citizens, Hispanics, and other minority groups. According to one reported analysis, 61 percent of individuals on the purge list are Hispanic, even though only 14 percent of registered voters in Florida are Hispanic. African American and Asian voters are also overrepresented on the purge list, while white voters are underrepresented.

The letter urges Florida to take the following immediate steps:

  • Stop any and all implementation of the non-citizen purge program within the Department and among supervisors of elections;
  • Reinstate to the rolls any voters who have not affirmatively confirmed non-citizen status, but were removed from the rolls, and send those voters confirmation of their corrected status;
  • Send notification to all other individuals who received notice of potential ineligibility to confirm their current registration status and the cessation of the program;
  • Publish public notices that the program has ceased;
  • Publicly disclose complete records detailing the origins of the program and the procedures used to compile and verify the accuracy of the lists of potentially ineligible non-citizen voters;
  • Institute Election Day safeguards that will protect any eligible voter on the disclosed lists from being erroneously prevented from casting a ballot.

For more information on the history of voter purges, see the Brennan Center’s 2008 report, one of the first systematic examinations of the chaotic and largely unseen world of purges.