By Paula Dockery
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked to comment on the state’s efforts to purge the voter rolls, the methodology by which it came up with the initial and revised lists, and the propriety of the U.S. Department of Justice’s intervention.
As a brief history, Gov. Rick Scott directed Florida’s Secretary of State to undertake an effort to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls. Initially, the Division of Elections identified roughly 180,000 potential non-citizens by searching a computer database from the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. After making comparisons to the voter registration database, it whittled the list to 2,600 voters and sent those names to the counties — just months before the 2012 elections.
At the top of the list was Miami-Dade, where 359 voters have had to prove they were Americans, and an additional 26 were determined to be citizens by the county. A mere 10 voters were either ineligible, or requested to be removed, from the rolls.
In Broward County, 259 voters were given 30 days to prove they were Americans. Among them: Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old Army veteran of World War II, who earned the Bronze Star and Legion of Honor for his service at the Battle of the Bulge.
Also in Broward, Maureen Russo got a government letter challenging where she was born. She sent a copy of her passport immediately. She was born in Akron, Ohio.
The stories don’t stop there. In Hillsborough, another World War II vet, Archibald Bowyer, 91, was forced to prove his citizenship. And in Seminole, Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel posted a picture of a so-called ineligible voter — holding his passport.
Across the state, stories about mistakes raise doubts about the integrity of the voter purge.
It will be interesting to see how many of the original 180,000 voters — or even the 2,600 targeted voters — will be removed. The preliminary data indicates a very small percentage, as evidenced by Miami-Dade, which found 10 illegal voters out of 395 — a mere 2.5 percent.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the Miami Herald: “List maintenance is ongoing. We would have gotten folks off the rolls if they are not supposed to be there.” To put this in perspective, Broward has more than a million registered voters and its list of potentially ineligible voters had 259 names.
We can all agree that we want our voter rolls to be as accurate as possible, eliminating non-citizens and voters that have died. Where the disagreement begins is in the manner that this is accomplished. If the state seeks to remove someone, shouldn’t it be certain the individual was registered improperly? Shouldn’t this be initiated through the 67 locally elected supervisors of election, who are constitutional officers? And shouldn’t this be done in a non-election year and in a non-redistricting year?
One legitimate concern is that some eligible voters might be purged incorrectly and prevented from voting. What if the voter is disabled, old, blind and doesn’t respond to the letter? What if the voter moved and never received the letter or was away from home and saw the letter too late? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the state to remove a voter rather than on the voter to prove he or she should remain?
A spokesman for Florida’s Secretary of State said “a handful of people have been inconvenienced.” It seems more accurate to say, “in order to remove a handful of ineligible voters, a thousand or so legitimate voters were inconvenienced,” including two 91-year-old vets who fought for the right for all of us to hold free elections.
The Justice Department has ordered the purge to stop, but the governor has indicated a desire to challenge the feds. The appropriate response should be for the state to voluntarily cease the purge and direct the 67 elections supervisors to implement an ongoing process to clean up the voter rolls, with state agencies sharing their databases. That way, local supervisors could check the voter’s status without issuing alarming letters to citizens. As constitutional officers, it is their responsibility to protect the integrity of the voting process, a role they take very seriously.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached by email here.