Disenfranchising 101

Five good reasons why all Americans should care about Florida's voter purge

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner have been pushing to scrub that state's voter rolls of alleged "noncitizens" who don't have the right to vote.

Their strategy is bizarrely flawed, has swept legally registered voters up in its net, and has been declared a violation of federal voting laws by the U.S. Department of Justice. Yet it continues.

However, there aren't very many outraged citizens demanding a stop to this effort to pluck people off the voter rolls. A handful of progressive citizens groups—the usual suspects—are trying to drum up interest, outrage and support.

Where is everybody else on this?

"Well, that's a good question," says Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "I don't know. I'm equally frustrated by that. Where is the outrage, to use what is now a trite phrase? I don't know. I'm sorry to say that Americans are too willing to wake up in the morning ... and express their outrage to themselves over a cup of coffee and the morning paper."

It's not like nobody cares about the situation: The federal government unsuccessfully sued the state because the voter purge seemingly violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the state is suing the federal government so it can get more information to more efficiently purge the voter rolls; and the ACLU and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are suing the state.

But the civil-rights organizations and government interests shouldn't be the only ones to care. You should care. Everyone should care—even people who do not live in the state of Florida.

And here's why: The state's voter purge is not just a slimy strategy to win an election. It's an attempt to degrade our voting system, undermine our elections and suppress people's ability to vote—particularly people who are minorities, many of whom are undecided voters or vote for more-liberal candidates. The voter purge is an assault on our freedom and our self-determination—and it's spreading.

A Tea Party-backed effort begun by an organization called True the Vote is suing states to force them to enact purges of their own. The organization's mission, according to its website, is to "promote ideas that actively protect the rights of legitimate voters, regardless of their political party affiliation." Underlying the organization's rhetoric is the unstated conclusion that our government is corrupt not because money taints our legislatures and Congress: True the Vote's angle is that our biggest, most-pressing problem is that some people who are registered to vote are either dead or illegally registered. The organization has partnered with Judicial Watch on its "election integrity" project, and the two organizations have multiple states—Mississippi, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, Alabama and California—in their crosshairs.

So get mad, people. You should care. Here are five good reasons why we should be raising the roof over this brazen act of voter suppression.

1. Because it's happened before: Those even mildly taken aback by the blind chutzpa currently being exhibited by Gov. Scott and his purge-worthy defiance needn't look back too far in the Florida annals for another example of suppression via the voter rolls. On Nov. 7, 2000—the day that brought us the term "hanging chad"—Florida's less-obvious electoral fumble came in the form of tens of thousands of eligible Florida voters either getting turned away at their polling places, or being forbidden to register altogether.

In a twisted bit of conservative housecleaning logic, the state had already ordered a scrub of the voter rolls prior to Gov. Jeb Bush's 1998 gubernatorial election; in order to do so, the state paid Database Technologies Inc. (the only bidder) $2.3 million to get the job done; 8,000 of the names ordered to be removed were provided by Texas state officials working under Jeb's brother, Gov. George W. Bush.

Fast forward two years later, and Jeb Bush's since-maligned Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered the names of 82,389 ex-felons—who had relocated to Florida from states where voting rights are restored upon completion of their prison sentences—deleted from the voter roles. In other words, Florida broke the law. Subsequent studies found the accuracy rate of the database to be far below DBT's estimate of 85 percent (a Leon County assessment came up with a 5 percent accuracy rate), but even if DBT was correct, that would still mean that 15 percent of a population that votes 93 percent Democratic was not allowed to vote. Don't think that matters much? George W. Bush won Florida by a margin of just 543 votes.

2. Because voting is a right, not a privilege: Our federal Constitution guarantees that citizens over the age of 18 cannot be deprived of a vote based on race, age or gender. The right to vote is a hard-earned one, even though most of us didn't really have to fight all that hard in our lifetimes to get it. Up until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was finally passed, many states implemented processes and obstacles that made it harder for people—mostly minorities—to cast a vote. We should have put that shit behind us more than 40 years ago, yet politicians in Florida (and Texas and everywhere, basically) are continually looking for new ways to get around that law.

One of the earliest documents drawn up that led to the founding of our nation—the Declaration of Independence—compiled a list of grievances against King George III, not the least of which was the failure of the king to respect the colonists' rights to have a say in how they were governed.

3. Because it's illegal: Critics of the Florida's scrub-happy maneuvering have cited two very important laws meant to curtail intentional voter suppression: the 1965 Voting Rights Act and 1993's National Voter Registration Act. The former forbids states from enacting laws that prohibit voter participation based on race, forcing areas in the South (which had historically been responsible in large part for poll taxes and Jim Crow laws) to get clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to voting laws. The latter, the NVRA, prevents states from adjusting their voter rolls within 90 days of a federal election, among numerous other pro-voter caveats. When a legion of voting and civil-rights groups banded together to sue the state on the matter of its mass purge—citing, among various racial implications, the fact that there is a federal election within the next 90 days (that being the Aug. 13 primary)—the response from the DOJ was swift and clear: The purge likely does violate the aforementioned laws, and should probably be stopped.

4. Because it's racist: Don't believe anyone who tells you that it's not. Even if the process itself is blind—even if the voter purge is being implemented purely on data and not on the color of voters' skin—the statistics are not. Latinos make up more than 58 percent of those contained in the flawed voter-purge list being used to scrub the rolls. It's no secret that the Hispanic vote has yet to be fully claimed by any party—Hispanic voters, pollsters point out, are often swing voters, less likely to vote along party lines. Which means they are unpredictable. Which means it's better to just keep them from getting to the polls in the first place, rather than taking a chance that they vote and fail to vote for the "right" candidate.

Pair this anti-Latino scrubbing effort with Gov. Scott's earlier chipping away at efforts that mobilize the black vote, and ... well, the ACLU's Simon doesn't mince words:

"There is a racial aspect to this and all the other voting-suppression measures that were adopted by the Legislature and championed by the governor and now being defended by the governor," he says. "Cutting in half the number of early-voting days and specifically banning voting on the Sunday before the Tuesday election, for instance. Please, somebody explain to me how that addresses voter fraud, rather than simply make it more difficult for working people to vote? And to make it more difficult for the Souls to the Polls program, which so many African-American churches were engaged in? That's what it was designed to do, and fraud is being used as an excuse to make it more difficult to vote, more difficult to register to vote, and more difficult to have your vote counted."

5. Because the corporations are winning: The injury currently being added to the insult of Gov. Scott's wild-eyed suppression tactics comes in the form of increased political clout among billionaire CEOs and the regulation-fearing corporations they represent. Part of the ramp-up in influence comes by way of the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that concluded that corporations are people, too, and, as such, have the right to give back-scratching billions to whatever political campaigns might tickle their fancy.

But even with that ruling, the rise of the super-PAC—a far-less-transparent means of funding candidates and issues—has attracted the lion's share of shadowy corporate money. What that means is that voters in general need to avoid an influx of lies parading across their television screens in order to make their own informed choices. But, as is the nature of advertising, it also indirectly means that general impressions and brand recognition are being nefariously directed by corporate interests. You buy your candidates like you buy your soda these days. It's no surprise that many of these corporate interests have likewise been trying to suppress voter registration at the state level via one-stop lobbying organizations such as the American Legislative Executive Council, a back-room factory for derailing progressive policies. The only way to counter the wholesale purchase of the electoral process is to have a strong, informed and varied pool of representation on the voter rolls.

This, dear reader, is exactly what these conservatives do not want. They don't want you.

This piece originally appeared in the Orlando Weekly.

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