(Updated: 6/2/2012) The Justice Department May 31 asked Florida to halt an effort to purge the state’s voter rolls, saying that the move appears to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In a letter, to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner,T. Christian Herren Jr., said the planned move sidesteps the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) rules–part of the federal voting rights statute– to maintain “accurate and current” voter registration lists “in a uniform and non-discriminatory manner.”

The state has less than a week to respond. “To enable us to meet our responsibility to enforce federal law, please inform us by June 6 of the action that the state of Florida plans to take concerning the matters discussed in this letter,’’ Herren wrote. “Specifically, please advise whether the state intends to cease the practice discussed above, so that the department can determine what further action, if any, is necessary.”

State officials said they are sticking to the plan to purge the rolls.

Voting rights groups are challenging Florida’s plan to purge as many as 182,000 alleged non-citizens from its voter rolls, saying the process unfairly targets minorities and fails to meet federal elections guidelines.

“We are particularly concerned about the impact of this election year’s voter removal practice on eligible voters of color protected under the Voting Rights Act, given Florida’s documented history of erroneous, discriminatory purges in the past,” said the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to protect voting rights, in a letter that requested the Department of Justice to step in and stop the process. “Furthermore, we note the possible retrogressive impact on minority voters, particularly Latinos, as reportedly 58 percent of voters being challenged are Latino.”

In May, Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced his department was partnering with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to identify non-citizens who are currently on the state’s voter rolls. “Our partnership with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will be instrumental in our efforts to ensure the accuracy of Florida’s voter rolls, not only this year but in the years to follow,” Detzner said. “Florida voters need to know only eligible citizens can cast a ballot and we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that is the case.”

The initial review listed 2,600 potentially ineligible voters, who were identified by matching voter registration files with driver’s license data. County-level election officials sent letters to those individuals, warning them that they had to produce citizenship documentation within 30 days or they would be stripped from the voter registration rolls. It also warned that casting a ballot was a felony for a non-U.S. citizen.

Since then, some 7,000 convicted felons and 50,000 deceased voters have been purged from the voter database, officials said.

Some questioned the timing of this initiative given that Florida has a primary election on Aug. 14. In its letter to the DOJ, Advancement Project—one of five organizations that formed a coalition to address the voter purge—said Florida failed to meet federal preclearance standards. The National Voter Registration Act says efforts to ensure the accuracy of voter registration polls must take place 90 days before a federal election.

“Nobody should be OK with ineligible voters being on the rolls,” Chris Cate, Detzner’s spokesman, told HuffingtonPost.com. “We’re simply trying to address that. And we aren’t more concerned or doing this because this is election year. This isn’t an election year issue. This is a voting integrity issue, something we worry about all the time.”
In addition to the state’s failure to meet the NVRA deadline requirement, the coalition pointed to reports of U.S.-born and naturalized Americans whose names appeared among the 2,600 suspected non-citizens.

Detzner and his staff said that’s because the Department of Homeland Security denied them access to its database, which has more current immigration and citizenship information. Instead, Florida’s election agency will pay $90,000 to the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles—which has access to the DHS database—to review the records.

“Believe me, if we had this information a year ago, or two years ago we would have acted on it then,” Cate, Detzner’s spokesman, said.

The DOJ action was applauded by NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous June 1. “Florida’s recent attempt at purging eligible voters is an example of the extremist state officials’ relentless attack on voting rights,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the National NAACP. “This reproach from the Department of Justice sets the precedent for all states attempting voter purges that violate federal election law, confuse voters, and disenfranchise eligible voters.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO