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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.