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In Florida voter roll scrub, charges of suppression

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In Florida voter roll scrub, charges of suppression

  • Recent polls suggest Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in a dead heat with President Barack Obama.
    Gage Skidmore/FlickrRecent polls suggest Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in a dead heat with President Barack Obama.

One of the weird things about politics in Florida is that, although Republicans own commanding majorities in both houses of the legislature and have consistently won the governorship since 1998, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 500,000 registered voters.

Around 4.5 million voters are registered as Democrats, compared to 4 million Republicans, according to Florida Division of Elections data through April 12. Another 2.7 million are registered as "other."

The Democrats' present lead is smaller than it was in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain for the White House. During that fevered campaign, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 4.8 million to 4.1 million — with 700,000 new Democrats having been added to the rolls in the previous year.

Obama won Florida's 27 electoral votes by getting 4.1 million votes to McCain's 3.9 million. It was a rather small margin of victory — 50.9 percent to 48.4 percent — and it had to make both parties newly appreciative of the power of the simple mechanics of politics: registering voters and getting them to the polls.

Hell, why go to the trouble of persuading people to vote for your guy when it’s so much easier to keep them from taking part in the election at all?

But just one of those parties has its hands on the levers of state government. And it seems to be doing all it can to blunt the other major party's numerical advantage. Only, this isn't just some numbers game. It's about taking steps to prevent people from voting. Hell, why go to the trouble of persuading people to vote for your guy when it's so much easier to keep them from taking part in the election at all?

First, we had the legislature's move last year to enact a new voting law that makes it so hard to register voters that independent groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote halted their efforts in Florida. That law is now under review by a federal court.

Another provision shortens the early-voting period from 14 days to eight. And it bans registering voters on the Sunday before Election Day.

These restrictions are a particular worry to African-Americans. These — and similar barriers erected in other states — are the subject of a meeting this week in Washington among black clergy and the Black Congressional Caucus. The McClatchy newspaper chain reports:

In 2008, scores of African-American churches in Florida and across the country held "Souls to the Polls" drives, in which churches helped parishioners go directly from the pews to the polls after Sunday services.

African-Americans made up only 13 percent of voters in Florida but 22 percent of early voters. And they accounted for 31 percent of voters on the final Sunday before the election, Dartmouth College government professor Michael Herron and University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in January.

African Methodist Church Bishop McKinley Young, whose district encompasses Florida and the Bahamas, said losing that last Sunday "hurts the scope and reach of the people with 'Souls to the Polls'" and will make turnout efforts tougher for African-American clergy.

Second, we have the drive by Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner to purge the rolls of thousands of suspected noncitizens. Late last year, Scott ordered his then-Secretary of State, Kurt Browning, to "identify and remove non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls."

But Browning didn't have reliable citizenship data to go on. A list created from motor-vehicle department information coughed up 182,000 names. Browning considered the list so flawed that he refused to forward it to county elections officials. Browning resigned in February. With a new man in place, Scott pressed on, starting with 2,600 voters.

Those folks have received letters, telling them their voter registration will be scrubbed unless they produce proof of citizenship within 30 days. Most of them, of course, are Hispanics, Democrats and independents.

Already, mistakes are popping up. Maureen Russo — born in Akron, Ohio, and a registered voter for 40 years — received such a letter. She's one of 259 residents of Broward County who did. According to ThinkProgress, only seven had responded as of Saturday. If the others don't answer by around June 5, they'll be ineligible to vote.

In Pasco County, Ohio-born Manoly Castro-Williamson, a faithful voter for years, also received one of the letters — another mistake.

In Miami-Dade County, "1,638 people were flagged by the state as 'noncitizens.' Already, 359 people on the list have provided the county with proof of citizenship and 26 people were identified as U.S. citizens directly by the county. The remaining 1,200 have simply not responded to the letter informing them of their purported ineligibility. Similar problems have been identified in Polk County and Broward County," the liberal ThinkProgress website reports.

This year's presidential race looks to be exceptionally close. Just look at two polls released last week, one showing Obama clearly ahead of Romney — the other showing Romney clearly ahead of Obama.

Citizenship questioning an 'insult'

One recipient of a letter questioning his citizenship — and therefore his right to vote — is Bill Internicola. He's 91 and American-born, a lifelong voter who has a Bronze Star for valor in the Battle of the Bulge.

"It was an insult," Internicola told the Palm Beach Post. "I was flabbergasted."

Internicola, who was decorated for his service as a medic during the epic winter battle of 1944-45 in Belgian forests in which 20,000 Americans died, sent Broward County officials a a copy of his military honorable discharge and a log of his military service. But that wasn't enough.

"They called and said they need to see my birth certificate," he said. "I think I might have it somewhere. I have to look."

If he doesn't produce it, he won't be able to vote.  At a press conference Tuesday, he didn't sound as if he had the heart to fight it. "I'm 91," he said. "How many more elections am I going to vote in anyway?"

Meantime, six Democratic members of Congress are asking Gov. Rick Scott to drop the drive to scrub the voting rolls, questioning its timing and the accuracy. Signing a letter to the governor were U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson.

Deutch said the purge is billed as a way to stem voter fraud, but that in Florida in 2008, when about 8 million people voted, only 16 cases of voter fraud were detected.

Media blackout?

ThinkProgress laments that Florida's drive to scrub the voter rolls has been met with a "virtual blackout' from national media:

The story of a sitting governor of a state with a history of presidential election shenanigans knowingly purging his own, eligible constituents from the voter rolls is the definition of major news, and yet remarkably, in the first five months of the year, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have published a total of zero articles about Scott's actions. The New York Times did slightly better, printing one story on page 16 of the Friday, May 18th edition. The article ran under the credulous headline: "Florida Steps Up Effort Against Illegal Voters."

But here's something that might help raise the story's profile. Attorney General Eric Holder told a meeting of leaders of black churches on May 30 that the "sacred" right to vote is under attack, and pledged to vigorously fight restrictive state laws. Politico reports:

Forty-seven years after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, "overt and subtle forms of discrimination still exists," Holder said in a speech before the Council of Black Churches. The twin factors of lingering bias and systematic assaults from the right, he said, means that "for the first time in our [lifetimes], we are failing to live up to one of our most noble ideals" – the right to equal access to the vote…

Holder … rejected conservatives' contention that making it easier to vote invites fraud, a key argument in calling for tougher voter ID laws.

Recalling that protesters and faith leaders faced violence and death to gain that right during the 1960s civil rights movement, Holder called on black churches to mobilize as an ally of the Justice Department, informing the larger community and pushing back against restrictive proposals.

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