Latest Florida voter purge scheme threatens immigrants' voting rights

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's new voter purge plan is being challenged as discriminatory to recently naturalized citizens.

It seems Florida just can't resist the urge to purge.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott (R) went toe to toe with the federal government and civil rights groups for the power to needle thousands of Floridians -- mostly Latinos -- about their citizenship under the threat of voter roll expulsion. Scott lost that battle thanks in part to the Voting Rights Act. But not long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that the VRA coverage formula was unconstitutional, Scott began planning how to reinstate his purge program.

This week, Floridians of color are speaking out against those purge plans as a class of people who are most likely to be challenged by the Florida government about their citizenship.

The Florida organizations LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Florida New Majority and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, along with the national civil rights organization Advancement Project*, are speaking out against Scott's plans and calling for county elections supervisors to reject the call to interrogate those the state has determined as possible "non-citizens." The groups fear that Scott's revived list maintenance scheme may unduly burden new naturalized citizens, most of whom are Latino and Haitians.

"We know from past experience that these types of voter purges are likely to ensnare valid citizens, and they disparately impact voters of color," said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“Moreover, a citizen is a citizen, and all should have equal access to their right to vote," said Florida Immigrant Coalition Executive Director Maria Rodriguez.

When the state first attempted this purge program last summer, it produced a list of names of roughly 2,600 people the Secretary of State's office determined needed to be questioned about their citizenship and hence their voting eligibility. The state sent the list to the supervisors of elections in each county instructing them to send letters to the people named requesting they come in and show documentation proving their citizenship. The state used a flawed methodology to produce that list, and as a result most of the elections supervisors rebuffed the state's inquiries. It was eventually determined that roughly 80 percent of the names on that list were people of color -- 61 percent were Latino, 16 percent black and 5 percent Asian-American.

Now the state is poised to produce a new list based on access to a federal database called System Alien Verification for Entitlements or SAVE, which the Department of Homeland Security uses to track public welfare benefits for immigrants. The Advancement Project argues that the SAVE database is an incomplete source for identifying citizenship at the time of voter registration. Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of Advancement Project's voter protection program, said in an interview that she has met with DHS officials about Florida's SAVE database usage for these purposes.

Florida successfully sued the federal government for access to SAVE last year, and since then at least a dozen other states have requested access to it as well. Many of those states have walked back those requests in recent months, though.

"I don't know why some states have been pulling out of their SAVE requests, but I think it's because many of them have realized that there's not a big problem with non-citizen voting," said Culliton-Gonzalez, "and also that this is not the way to solve even potential problems with that because [SAVE] is not a definitive database for that."
The Advancement Project filed two legal claims last year to halt Florida's purge scheme -- one under the VRA Section Two, which prohibits racially discriminatory election schemes, and also under the National Voter Registration Act, which forbids list maintenance activities within 90 days of a federal election. Scott began the purge program roughly two months before elections last year.

The VRA claim was settled with the agreement that Florida would send letters to the people who wound up on the purge list explaining to them that they were eligible to vote. But that settlement did not take the SAVE database maneuver into account because Florida hadn't been able to access it at the time. The NVRA claim is still open -- a district court denied it, but Advancement Project appealed to the 11th Circuit Court in Miami, with oral arguments scheduled for Oct. 10. That case may determine if Florida can use the SAVE database for list maintenance at least three months out from a federal election.

Meanwhile, many Floridians of color will have to prove their citizenship and produce birth certificates and other documents to maintain their voting eligibility. For recently naturalized Floridians -- no small crowd in a state that regularly receives immigrants and refugees from Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean nations -- producing and re-producing these documents can be costly. A new naturalization certificate is $680, and a replacement copy is $345. It can take as long as five months to process these forms.

"I believe that many people will be scared or will shy away from exercising their right to vote," said Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition on a press call yesterday. "It's like all of a sudden we are second-class citizens in our own country."

“Once a person is eligible to vote, that right should not have to be earned and re-earned, over and over again,” said Florida Immigrant Coalition director Maria Rodriguez.

(DISCLOSURE: The author's wife directs The Advancement Project's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Campaign.)