Yesterday, the Department of Justice made clear its intentions to seek a court injunction against the State of Florida for its ‘purge’ of illegal voters on the state’s rolls. This is only the latest episode in a long-term struggle between the Florida State Department and various federal agencies to gain cooperation over determining voter citizenship status. The timing of Florida’s attempts, while possibly politically beneficial, represents a challenge to the National Voter Registration Act, which stipulates a 90-day grace period before elections in which states cannot tamper with their voting rolls.
The numbers already discovered by the state speak for themselves – according to an investigation through the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 182,000 voters in the state have been identified as potentially ineligible. Those identified were then forwarded to counties and towns, which then did the heavy lifting of ascertaining a voter’s citizenship. An article in the St. Petersburg Times claims that ‘many’ of those names forwarded were determined by those municipalities to be eligible (presumably through contacting the voter), the implication being that ‘many’ also were not. By its own forces, the state has now identified almost 100 non-citizen voters.
The inefficiency of this process seems to cry out for a better way, and in fact there is one: a database of immigration information operated by the US Department of Homeland Security. The department, though, which normally allows the state access in order to ascertain citizenship for the issuance of driver’s licenses, has refused the state access for the purposes of checking voter eligibility. As a result, the conflict has generated an announcement of two opposing lawsuits – one by Florida and Gov. Rick Scott against the DHS for its obstructionism of the functions necessary to carry out US voting law, the other an injunction from the DOJ against the State for violating the 90-day grace period.
Many opponents of Florida’s actions have responded with similar arguments used to those countering Voter ID laws – that the purge in Florida is racially or politically discriminatory. Indeed, according to an investigation by the Miami Herald, more than 60% of those being investigated are black or hispanic. The political implications of these findings will be determined by whether supporters of the investigation are able to communicate effectively that something with racial implications is not by necessity racially motivated, and that citizenship is a matter of longevity, not of race. If they lose the public relations battle over these ideas, the Justice Department will claim a major victory over the ‘suppression’ of minority voices in American democracy.
One tool that the Justice Department has at its disposal is the obfuscation of language, particularly between the terms ‘illegal voting’ and ‘fraud.’ Due to the current lack of integration between voting rolls and citizenship data in Florida, the state is identifying a problem with illegal voting which does not technically entail falsification of one’s identity or fraud. Articles like this demonstrate a confusion between cases of past identified voter fraud and illegal voting. While few cases of actual fraud have been discovered in the past, those cases can either be explained by actually low rates of illegal voting, or by lack of information that has prevented the state from identifying illegal voters. Gov. Scott’s effort seeks to make this distinction clear and determine which of these two possibilities is in fact the case, but opponents of the state’s efforts will willingly fail to make this distinction in language and further confuse the situation.