Purging Democracy in the Sunshine State

Your Take: A sense of déjà vu in a Florida official's refusal to halt a purge of the voter rolls.

Florida's Secretary of State Ken Detzner (Courtesy of the State of Florida)

(Special to The Root) -- What's old is new.

Florida's Secretary of State Ken Detzner is boldly refusing to comply with the Department of Justice's demand that the state stop its efforts to purge voters from the registration rolls. On Wednesday, he sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice claiming that the purge should go forward.

Though he worries about the integrity of the voting rolls, it seems as if Detzner's boss, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, doesn't care if the Sunshine State isn't quite so sunny for all of its voters. Reports indicate that 87 percent of the people targeted as suspected non-citizens are people of color. But others, including a 91-year-old war hero who won the Bronze Star for his service in World War II, have had their citizenship status questioned, too.

I can't help but feel a sense of déjà vu watching this go down, especially after the senseless purge before the contested 2000 presidential election. More than 1,000 eligible voters were improperly stricken from the rolls and couldn't vote in the election. A disproportionate number of those affected were minorities, and most importantly, then as now, Florida knew that its purge list was flawed and likely, if not guaranteed, to ensnare eligible voters.

In testimony in a purge case that followed the 2000 election, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund learned that the company that prepared the purge list for Florida advised that the voter name "match criteria" were overly broad and would capture eligible voters. The state ignored this warning.

This time around Florida's local election supervisors raised the red flag about the unreliability of the purge list, but again Florida chose to forge ahead.  

Indeed, the responses of many of those charged with running elections illustrates that there are still strong voices in Florida that put democracy over electoral advantage, and that those voices are bipartisan. The statewide organization of Florida election officials -- representing all of its 67 election supervisors -- declared that the latest voter purges should cease until the DOJ's concerns are resolved. In turn, the election supervisors have stopped the purge and some have taken to the airwaves to denounce this democracy-debasing tactic, describing the purge as inconsistent with Florida's own laws.

This purge, however, is just the tip of the iceberg in Florida's efforts to erect unnecessary barriers at the polls. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund represents the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and African-American voters in a case filed to prevent the state from imposing other measures that would suppress voting. The state attempted to cut the number of early voting days in half, impose severe restrictions on voter registration drives and make it harder for people who recently moved to vote.

It is entirely foreseeable that if left unchecked, all of these measures would adversely impact minority voters. For instance, more than half of African-American voters in Florida voted during the early voting period in 2008, as stated in our report "Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America" (pdf). Other leading civil rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice also are fighting for voters against Florida's concerted efforts to make voting harder for its citizens.

The latest attempt to purge voters in Florida is unfortunately part of a much wider assault on minority voting rights that extends beyond the state. These recent efforts follow the record political participation by blacks and other minorities in 2008, and the dramatic population growth by people of color nationally.