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?

Getty Images

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.

Earlier this month, a resolution was reached when Homeland Security agreed to give the secretary of state's office access to the SAVE database. At the moment, the secretary's office is working with Homeland Security on the terms of the agreement, with hopes of signing a memorandum in the coming days, according to Chris Cate, the spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

"We're going to use the SAVE database to verify information we've received indicating someone is a noncitizen," Cate said. "If we receive information that someone on the voter rolls is a noncitizen, we'll use the SAVE database to validate whether or not that's true, and then we'll provide that information to the [county election] supervisors to complete the statutory removal process."

Cate said a new list of potential noncitizen voters would be created from the most current information contained in the driver's license database. The main problem with the initial driver's license list, he said, was that it captured people who had become naturalized citizens since they last renewed their licenses. But running the names through the SAVE database, which is updated through the last 72 hours, will keep those people from being purged, he said.

For now, though, this process is still hypothetical, and the purge is in limbo. Opponents point to the logistical hurdles involved in using the Homeland Security database to question whether it will be able to proceed. Susan Bucher, who is the elections supervisor for Palm Beach County and a former Democratic state legislator, wondered if the upshot might instead be that Republicans, having made so much noise about the pervasive threat of illegal voters, aren't actually able to prove that many of them exist. "I don't think they're going to find the volume they were anticipating," she told me.

Time is running short; under state law, it takes at least 60 days to remove a voter from the rolls -- a process cited by Scott and others as a crucial due-process safeguard against improper disqualifications -- and only 105 days remain until the general election as of Tuesday. Even if the state does come up with a set of suspicious registrations based on the Homeland Security database, it will then be up to the 67 independent, elected county supervisors to proceed, and there's a good chance they will decline to do so. Bucher, for example, was among the 64 supervisors who didn't go forward with the last purge effort. (She says her office was in the process of getting letters translated into Spanish when the Justice Department lawsuit halted the process.)

"It clearly is partisan and political, but actually, there is no purge going on at the moment," said Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor in Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee. "Unless the quality of the information we receive from the state gives us a reasonable belief that it is accurate, we don't actually have to do anything." Sancho, an independent who is harshly critical of Republican voting-restriction efforts, predicted he and many of his fellow clerks would simply refuse to implement voter removals out of concern the evidence wasn't sufficient.

Meanwhile, Florida may have reached an accommodation with the federal government, but the state is still embroiled in litigation with civil-rights groups who oppose the purge. A suit brought by a coalition that includes the Advancement Project, Fair Elections Legal Network, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Project Vote based on the initial purge effort is ongoing, said Judith Browne-Dianis, a co-director of the Advancement Project. The lawsuit charges that the purge violates the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act by disproportionately affecting minority voters. "The state is going to be closely monitored in how they use the list," Browne-Dianis said. "Florida is going to have to prove they're using their list in a non-discriminatory way."

In the end, the voter purge battle in Florida may have been fought to a draw. Some Democrats told me they believe it has created fear and confusion that will make some people decide voting isn't worth the hassle; others think the attack on minorities' rights will backfire instead by energizing them to vote. Meanwhile, legislative changes to other aspects of Florida's elections, such as shortening the early-voting period and requiring photo identification, may prove more consequential to turnout in the end.

And that may be 2012's most significant echo with the notorious 2000 presidential election in Florida: a purge that wasn't. One of the many supposed culprits of the 2000 mess was the state's attempt to remove convicted felons from the voter rolls. In a 2004 paper published in the Political Science Quarterly, Guy Stuart, a researcher at Harvard, got a hold of the voter file and analyzed the data to see if the felon purge might have swung the election.

"The list was deemed to have numerous errors in it, and I was able to identify some of those errors," he said -- such as the fact that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to share a few exceedingly common last names.

"But as is the case now, a lot of the supervisors simply refused to use the list to purge voters," Stuart said. "The bottom line was that the purge was unlikely to have affected the outcome of the election, because it was hardly implemented."