Will Florida's Voter Purge Cost Obama the Election?

Republican Rick Scott's attempt to cleanse the voter rolls of noncitizens has Democrats in a panic. Could the pivotal swing state be headed for another 2000-style voting debacle?

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It is November 7, the day after the 2012 presidential election, and Barack Obama has narrowly lost his bid for reelection. What clinched it: a photo-finish defeat in Florida -- a few thousand votes in a state of more than 11 million voters. And then the reports start to trickle in from Floridians who say they were disenfranchised. Shortly before the election, they got an official letter telling them they couldn't vote, even though they're U.S. citizens. Most of them are Hispanic and say they would have voted Democratic.

This is the nightmare scenario envisioned by Florida Democrats: The Republican voter purge has cost them the election. But could it really happen? Could Republican Governor Rick Scott's push to cleanse the voter rolls of noncitizens -- viewed by Democrats as a suspiciously timed, partisan attempt to suppress Hispanic voter turnout -- end up swinging the presidential race to the GOP?

Scott, in a recent interview, insisted that was the furthest thing from his mind. "I never think about that," the governor told me. "I just think about what my job is, which is to make sure we enforce the laws of my state. Non-U.S. citizens do not have the right to vote in my state."

For Scott, who was elected in 2010 with a strong stance against illegal immigration, it's that simple: There's evidence that noncitizens have cast ballots in the past, and that has to stop. (Unlike the supposed problem of voter fraud, of which there few documented instances, noncitizens do vote in many elections. Often, it's an innocent mistake -- a legal immigrant who signed up to vote at the DMV, not realizing she wasn't eligible, for example.)

After months of controversy and lawsuits, Scott recently secured the cooperation of the federal government with his voter purge efforts, an agreement he hailed as a significant victory. His example is now being emulated by Republican election officials in numerous other states, including Colorado, Ohio, and Iowa -- a trend Democrats and their allies fear is a new front in the highly politicized battle over voting rights. Scott hailed it as progress: "This is great for our state and great for other states," he said. "The right to vote is a sacred right."

The purge effort has Democrats and the Obama campaign on high alert, convinced it is a thinly veiled ploy to keep their voters from the polls. "[Scott's] original plan would have disenfranchised tens of thousands of eligible voters. It's clear it was really a political ploy from the very beginning," said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat who has led the charge against the purge. "When you look at the states throughout the country that are trying to make it more difficult to register and cast a vote, it's obvious that there is a nationwide effort underway to suppress the vote."

For all Scott's triumphalism and Democrats' concern, however, it's far from clear whether his purge will even go forward in time for the November election; and if it does, its scope is likely to be severely limited. Even as the federal government has agreed to cooperate with Florida's purge effort, the state hasn't yet determined how it will go forward, and time is running out. Meanwhile, more potential obstacles -- in the form of outstanding legal challenges, as well as the local officials who may simply refuse to take voters off the rolls -- stand in the way of the effort.

The result may well be a stalemate in which the whole voter purge, despite having caused such an uproar, comes to naught or nearly so. So while the polls show another close election in Florida, those anticipating another debacle on the scale of the 2000 recount are likely to be disappointed.

A quick recap of the purge story thus far: The Florida secretary of state, who oversees elections and is appointed by the governor, initially drafted a list of some 180,000 potential illegal voters based on the state driver's license database. Some legal immigrants can get driver's licenses in the state, including those on student or work visas and those in the process of naturalization; the state sought to match those names with the names of voters.

The secretary's office whittled that list down to about 2,600 names that it considered most suspect and sent those to the respective county supervisors to check. Right away, problems began to crop up. In Broward County, for example, one of the voters who got a letter telling him he'd have to prove his citizenship to continue voting was 91-year-old Bill Internicola, a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran living in a retirement community who'd been voting in Florida for 18 years. But the effort also did turn up more than 100 noncitizens who'd been illegally registered to vote.

The secretary of state's office maintains that it always realized the driver's license list was insufficient for the purpose of vetting voter registrations. Instead, it began asking the feds for access to a database -- the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system, known as SAVE -- used to check the eligibility of applicants for federal benefits. When the Department of Justice sued Florida to stop the initial purge effort, Florida sued back to force the Department of Homeland Security to let it use the SAVE database.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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