The state of Florida is defying orders from the federal government to cease a voter purging program they say they're not conducting. Topping that, the state is seeking access to a federal database it already has access to. Still worse, Florida is saying that the Department of Justice's enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act actually denies people their right to vote. A love bizarre.
The confusion began when Gov. Rick Scott's administration introduced a program to the public last month that purports to identify "non-citizens" who might be registered to vote. Last week, the Department of Justice asked Gov. Scott's Secretary of State Kent Detzner to stop the program because it appears to violate federal civil rights and voter registration laws, and because dozens of citizens eligible to vote kept turning up on the state's "non-citizen" list. Scott and Detzner responded yesterday that they weren't stopping anything, and that it's the federal government who is violating laws by not granting Florida access to an immigration database so they can find more "non-citizens."
The standoff has been all heat and no light around a poorly designed and poorly timed voter purging scheme. Meanwhile, the votes of thousands of Floridian U.S. citizens are threatened because of a pure hunch from Gov. Scott that aliens might be voting.
The whole mess started last month, or at least that's when Detzner announced a "new Initiative to remove non-citizens from Florida voter rolls." But the real genesis for the program was early 2011, right after Gov. Scott took office, when he had a side chat with his then-State Secretary Kurt Browning about "non-citizens" voting. Neither the governor nor Browning had any evidence of this actually being a problem, but Browning told Scott it was an issue anyway. So started a review of the state's voter registration lists by state election officials.
So when did the program actually start? Well, it depends on who's asking the question. A FAQ from Gov. Scott's website, posted yesterday, reads "The process to remove non-U.S. citizens from Florida's voter database actually began in Spring 2011." It wasn't publicized until May 9, though, which is when the state sent out letters to county supervisors of elections, who were directed to forward the letters to about 2,600 people the state suspected were "non-citizens."
It's safer to say the program began when the county supervisors received the letters, which was mid-May, because that started the clock on a 30-day deadline for the letters' recipients to turn themselves in and prove their citizenship so that they wouldn't be purged. Those 2,600 names came from a list of 182,000 people created by the Department of State (DOS) and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV). This process apparently did begin early last year when DHSMV used their database of Floridian drivers licenses holders to find names of people who were not full citizens when they received their state ID.
According to Detzner's May 9 announcement, the new program was "already proving to be successful" because of the information sent on the 2,600 "potential non-citizens" to elections supervisors "for review and, if warranted, removal from Florida's voter rolls."
The problem with this, though, is that DHSMV's list includes plenty of people who've earned citizenship since obtaining their driver's licenses. I asked DHSMV how many years back it searched to come up with their names. Did they just search people who got their license last year? Or did they check back to 2010? Or 2008? 2000? DHSMV spokesperson Courtney Heildelberg told me their list consisted of anyone in the system who ever received an ID at anytime in history when not a citizen. Their information is "only as good as a person's last visit to the [DHSMV] office," said Heidelberg, even if that last visit was five, 10 or 20 years ago.
This list has existed since last year, when Kurt Browning was still DOS Secretary. He never released the list, though, because he had no confidence in it. Browning stepped down in January, and Detzner was appointed his replacement. Lacking the same judgment and caution of Browning, who's no stranger to voter purging schemes, Detzner plowed forward with the program.
County elections supervisors have refused to send the letters out, much to the chagrin of Florida Republicans, citing the problematic methodology of how DOS arrived at the names. Some supervisors checked the names themselves and found few reasons to believe the names were for non-citizens. As discovered by Think Progress and other media outlets, many of the people who were sent letters were in fact citizens, which threw the whole program into question.
Florida supervisors of elections had a conference in May where they expressly asked state officials if a non-response to the letters mandated a purge, and were told no.
In response to DOJ's red light warning on the voter purge program, Gov. Scott said state officials don't do purges anyway. From Scott's FAQ: "Florida's Department of State isn't removing anyone from the voter registration rolls. Only independent elections supervisors in each county may remove voters from the voter rolls." So if the county supervisors aren't implementing the program, the DOJ officials want the program stopped, and the state is denying wielding the axe anyway, what's the point?
DOS claims they've been trying to access the federal Department of Homeland Security's immigration lists to verify their "non-citizen" info but have been rebuffed. A letter that DOS sent to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on May 31 reads:
"As you may be aware, my department has received credible and reliable information from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) indicating non-citizens may be registered to vote in Florida. While processing this new information, it became clear that our department's ability to validate a person's legal status as up-to-date was limited. To the best of our knowledge, the Department of Homeland Security's Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program has the information we need, and by federal law, we are entitled to request and receive legal status information from the federal government."
More confusion: First Florida says they have "credible and reliable information," but a sentence later it "became clear that" their information "was limited." DOS then writes that "after nine months of requests, we have not been granted access to" the SAVE database nor "any other available DHS database." But in a presentation DOS gave at the county elections supervisors conference last month they admitted using DHS's Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) database to cross-check their non-citizen list. They admitted the same in their May 9 press release. The ICE database is a DHS database.
For some reason, the Scott administration has been hell-bent on accessing DHS' SAVE database, which only lists names of immigrants eligible to receive federal public benefits (food stamps, housing assistance, etc.). Yesterday, Detzner sent a scathing response letter to DOJ's cease request, much of it accusing the federal department of stonewalling Florida's request to access the SAVE list. Here's a thread of emails between Florida's state department and DHS. Detzner believes SAVE is the only database that can save their voter removal program, and argues that a state agency can request access to it for voter registration verification purposes. A small line in this federal registry concerning SAVE usage appears to confirm Detzner's argument.
But how about the state already has access to the database, through the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles -- the agency that created the first list of 182,000.
It was just last week that Detzner's spokesman Chris Cate described to me another new program that DOS was working on with DHSMV to check the non-citizen voter rolls against the SAVE database, at a cost of about .50 cents per name. Why have they been beating down DHS door for databases they already have access to? When I asked Cate this he told me he needed another day to gather more information. The May 31 letter from Florida's DOS to DHS Sec. Napolitano provided a partial explanation:
"Our state partner, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), has access to the SAVE database and explored the possibility of using SAVE to update their information about the potential non-citizens, which would have given us the confirmation we need to identify ineligible voters. However, the agreement between your agency and DHSMV does not allow DHSMV to continually update their records, leaving my department, again, without a means to obtain directly or indirectly the information we need and are entitled to receive."
When I spoke with Cate earlier this week, he said that DHSMV was not authorized to use the SAVE database to update their non-citizen voter rolls on a constant basis. Still confused, I contacted DHS to flat-out ask if the department denied Florida's DOS access to the its databases (which DOS appears already to have access to). DHS had no comment and referred me to the Department of Justice's letter stating that the entire Florida voter-removal program may be in violation of the National Voter Registration Act because it falls within ninety days of an election.
Detzner responded to that letter by telling DOJ, No, actually it's you who is violating the law. In probably the most confusing aspect of this whole narrative, Detzner wrote to DOJ:
If the effect of the NVRA is to force a state to allow never-eligible non-citizens the opportunity to vote, then the statute might violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, which guarantees that the right to vote cannot be denied by a dilution of the weight of a citizen's vote. If DOJ applies the NVRA in this manner, then presumably eligible voters in Florida have the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court to test whether their votes are being unconstitutionally denied by the federal government.
What? So Detzner wants DOJ to stop enforcing the law that forbids Detzner from carrying out a voter-removal program that Governor Scott says DOS can't do. The Department of State can't do it because only county supervisors of elections can remove voters, and they've said they won't comply with the program. But Scott and Detzner say they still need access to federal databases that they can already access to verify information that is already "reliable." ...But it's against the Fourteenth Amendment to stop Scott and Detzner from conducting this program that they can't conduct because it could mean that all voters are denied the right to vote.
How about Scott and Detzner make it simple for everyone and just close the program?