Last Thursday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a new low in its efforts to prevent individual states from combating vote fraud. The state of Florida was ordered to halt its efforts to identify and purge its voter rolls of non-citizens. “Our records do not reflect that these changes affecting voting have been submitted to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for judicial review or to the Attorney General for administrative review as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” wrote T. Christian Herren Jr., the DOJ’s lead civil rights lawyer. “Accordingly, it is necessary that they either be brought before that court or submitted to the Attorney General for a determination that they neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group under Section 5.”
Florida is not backing down. Despite being given until Wednesday to decide whether or not to comply with the DOJ’s order, it took state officials only one day to reach a decision. “We have an obligation to make sure the voter rolls are accurate and we are going to continue forward and do everything that we can legally do to make sure than ineligible voters cannot vote,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Friday. “We are firmly committed to doing the right thing and preventing ineligible voters from being able to cast a ballot. We are not going to give up our efforts to make sure the voter rolls are accurate.”
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires the DOJ or or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to “preclear” changes in “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964,” in order to prevent “denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” Florida is one of a handful of states, predominantly in the South, covered by Section 5, due to its historical efforts to suppress minority voting. Critics contend Section 5 continues to stigmatize states that have long abandoned tactics such as requiring non-white voters to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test. The Act contains a bailout provision for states that can demonstrate a record of good behavior, yet many counties within those states consider the cost of doing so prohibitive.
Earlier this year Secretary Detzner worked with the Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles to identify more than 2,600 people who were registered to vote despite being non-citizens at the time they applied for a driver’s license. Critics of the effort claim that many of those drivers become citizens between scheduled license renewals. They further contend that many of the warning letters sent out by state notifying these individuals that they would be purged from voter rolls unless they provided proof of citizenship within 30 days, were sent to people who were citizens.
Detzner, who contended that earlier efforts by his agency had identified 182,000 voters who were non-citizens by comparing voter rolls and driver’s license databases, revealed that he and his staff were refused access by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the federal database containing more up-to-date immigration and citizenship information. Thus, it would appear that the federal government is working at cross-purposes with itself: the DHS won’t assist Florida in its effort to be as non-discriminatory as possible, even as the DOJ insists that Florida is engaging in discrimination. And not just with respect to Section 5. The DOJ also contends Florida is violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that requires states to maintain “accurate and current” voter registration lists “in a uniform and non-discriminatory manner.”
Yet if testimony by former DOJ Voting Section attorney J. Christian Adams before a House Judiciary Subcommittee is accurate, the DOJ’s efforts in Florida are as hypocritical as it gets. “One of the most unfortunate circumstances relating to the 2012 elections is the absence of DOJ enforcement of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act,” Adams told the Subcommittee. “Voter rolls nationwide are filled with ineligible and dead voters. Yet the Department of Justice is deliberately refusing to enforce Section 8 and require states to purge rolls because of philosophical disagreement with the purging statute. Failure to enforce Section 8 to require states and localities to clean up voter rolls presents a troubling circumstance prior to the November 2012 elections.”
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