Journalism in the Public Interest

Why the Feds Are Suing Florida for Allegedly Purging Voters

Florida is trying to remove non-citizens from its voter rolls. Here is what’s happening—and why it’s so controversial.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott at a bill signing ceremony on June 12, 2012 in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Florida over its voter purge program aimed at removing non-citizens from voter rolls. We’ve taken a closer look at the controversy surrounding the program and why the federal government has gotten involved:

So what is Florida doing and why is it so controversial?

Florida has compiled a list of potential non-citizen registered voters using data provided by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. It has sent the list to county election supervisors and requested that the supervisors contact flagged voters to verify their citizenship.

In its suit, the Justice department has claimed the data is “outdated and inaccurate” and may mistakenly identify registered voters who are U.S. citizens, depriving them of their right to vote. In response, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has reiterated his support for the initiative, which he says is necessary to preserve the integrity of voting rolls.

Isn’t it important to perform such voter roll purges to make sure voter lists are up-to-date?


Yes, every state must go through its voter rolls in order to account for death, relocation out of state, or change in eligibility due to a criminal conviction or mental incapacitation. (Read more about purge practices in this 2008 report).

And of course, only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote in this country.

Florida is not the first state to flag the issue of non-citizen voting: both New Mexico and Colorado have taken similar steps. But Florida’s efforts—directing county officials to purge suspected non-citizens from the voter rolls—are getting extra attention because it’s happening so close to a presidential election.

Florida officials say they’re ordering the purge because of concerns about voter fraud. Such voting fraud appears to be quite rare, perhaps because the penalties are strict—it’s a felony in Florida and many other states—and the payoff relatively modest (a single vote). A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found very few cases. The report suggested that what was thought to be fraud was more often a result of registration error or other mistakes.

How many non-citizen voters has Florida found?


One hundred and five, according to Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Department of State. Those are non-citizens who are registered to vote. Fifty six of them have “a voting history,” said Cate. He could not provide the number of times these people cast a ballot. Florida has 11 million registered voters.

How many U.S. citizens are at risk of being purged from the voter roll?

It’s not clear.

Some news reports place the number at 500. (Here is a profile of one of the most widely publicized cases.)

Election supervisors in every county have been instructed to send a form letter notifying a person that he or she has been flagged by state driver’s license records for suspect eligibility and must send in proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers). If a person fails to respond within 30 days, a public notice is published in the newspaper. If another 30 days pass with no response, election supervisors can remove that person from the voting rolls.

That gives flagged voters a total of 60 days to object. And isn’t this all happening pretty close to the elections?


Yes, it’s a tight timeframe and that’s why the Justice Department says it’s suing.

The federal National Voter Registration Act of 1993 prohibits any action designed to adjust voter registration status 90 days before any federal election. As the government has pointed out, Florida holds its primary election for both parties on August 14 — less than 90 days away.

One provision of the law is meant to safeguard against potential error and give residents ample opportunity to challenge any false registration claims well before they head to the polls. That required 90-day window has appeared in litigation between other states and advocacy groups in previous years.

Are county officials following through on the purge?

No, only a few are.

Most of the election supervisors in Florida are opposed to the state’s voter purge initiative and have said they won’t follow through on it.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, for instance, has refused to contact any of the 115 suspected non-citizens in her county after observing that some of their interactions with the DMV dated as far back as 12 years.

“We knew the information was old,” Bucher told ProPublica.

Earl Lennard, an election supervisor in Hillsborough County, said his office won’t contact any more flagged residents “without any corroboration or additional information.”

Moreover, the general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections has recommended supervisors refrain from taking any further action until the government’s lawsuit is resolved.

If Florida is being too rushed, is there a better way to do it?

It depends whom you ask. The problem with state driver’s license records is that citizenship status can change without the DMV’s knowledge. A non-citizen who obtains a driver’s license and happens to register to vote at that time can become naturalized down the road. This new information won’t be reflected in DMV records unless that person later returned to renew their license.

The Florida Department of State acknowledges these potential limitations and has therefore sought to gain access to a federal database known as SAVE, for Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements. That database provides immigration status information to federal, state and local agencies to determine eligibility for public benefits and licenses. The Department of Homeland Security, which maintains the database, has refused to turn over the data; a June 11 Justice Department letter to Florida officials claims they must first give DHS more information about residents. Florida actually sued the federal government on Monday to get the data.

In interviews, Gov. Scott has accused the federal government of stonewalling his request, first made in September 2011.

That raises the question of why Gov. Scott’s administration has chosen to focus on this initiative now. Florida has been a key swing state, if not the decider, of past presidential elections. According to the Miami Herald, many of the voters flagged during the process have been registered independent. The Herald also reports that the voter purge was on Scott’s mind ever since early last year. Then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning told the paper he was reluctant to implement the initiative because “we didn’t have our I’s dotted and T’s crossed when I was there.”

“I wanted to make sure the data was good if it went out under my name,” Browning told the Herald.


Hasn’t there also been controversy over voter suppression in Florida?

Some critics of the voter-purge initiative say this is just one of a series of steps Gov. Rick Scott has taken to curtail voting rights. Within the last year, Florida has shortened the time frame for early voting, imposed tougher restrictions on voter registration drives and made it more difficult for released felons to regain the right to vote.  One Florida senator has compared the latest initiative with the state's  improper removal of 1,100 eligible felons from voter rolls prior to the 2000 election. 

The more stringent voting requirements are part of a national trend. Since early 2011, 41 states have introduced bills outlining more restrictive measures on voting procedures.

Superb explainer.  Thanks very much.  It’s particularly enlightening to read the whole DoJ letter for its very clear explanations of why FL isn’t being given access to the SAVE database and why what they’re doing or trying to do is flat-out against U.S. law, a livel of detail we certainly haven’t heard from either the right or the left wing.

So thank you.

This little Republican charade has been set up this year to stop minorities, the elderly and students from voting Democrat.  Republicans are trying this scare tactic, in addition to their racist vitriol, to have whites think that illegal minorities are voting at the polls.  Most people who deal with illegal immigrants on a regular basis know that the last thing an illegal immigrant wants to do is bring attention to him/herself but that doesn’t stop the racist jerks from doing this.

It goes to show how stupid people have become in this country.

Well, duh, of course the illigitimate voters would vote Democratic.  Non-citizens are the gimme, gimme’s.  And the Democratics are the Lady Bountiful with taxpayer dollars.  Here’s food stamps for you, and Section 8 housing for you, Medicaid for you and on and on.  It keeps them in office and on the payroll.

It appears quite clear, Florida asked homeland security for data a year ago , they stonewalled them, now Florida is using their data, The bottom line folks is—you can’t vote if you are not a citizen—end of story.
I could understand why this administration is concerned;—these are potentially their votes—get it—Another sad day in America—

.56 illegal voters out of 11 million? Doesn’t gov. Scott have much more important things to do with his time?

Every vote counts, from the 56 does that include you ??

just show photo ID, plain abd simple

Arline Mathews

June 15, 2012, 5:37 p.m.

Of course we want to weed out those who are not eligible to vote but not at the expense of citizens who have a right and a duty to vote in this democracy.  The eligible citizen exercising this power at the poll must be sacrosanct and honored or we lose who we are.  Unfortunately in their zeel to do good Florida overstepped the bounds and five times as many proper citizens attempting to vote as the illegal and impropers were denied their access to the polls.  This is an intolerable state of affairs.  Remember the “Road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Well the courts will now decide the issue so that the deserving public won’t be out of the loop the next time.  democracy first folks!  Love, Arline

Arline, Last week I didn’t have my Macy’s charge card I was asked for a drivers license and other form of identification, I didn’t have a problem with that, is that too much to ask for the honor to vote, I don’t think so—-the only one that has a problem is the one that should not vote in the first place; and of course the democrats since it’s likely they would get that vote,—get it—

re:  “Election supervisors in every county have been instructed to send a form letter notifying a person that he or she has been flagged by state driver’s license records for suspect eligibility and must send in proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers). If a person fails to respond within 30 days, a public notice is published in the newspaper. If another 30 days pass with no response, election supervisors can remove that person from the voting rolls.”

The Republicans’ mortgage-backed securities pyramid scam (which cost so very many Americans their homes) and their efforts to offshore America’s jobs along with their simultaneous effort to eliminate any government programs that provide alternative methods of generating income and attaining shelter from the elements make a lot more sense now, don’t they?

If you’re homeless, you’re not going to get that form letter.  If you’re homeless, you’re not gong to have the newspaper delivered.  If you’re jobless, you’re unlikely to be able to afford the luxury of a newspaper subscription even if you somehow manage to afford to keep your home or pay rent on an apartment.  Even if you’re not jobless but you’ve been relegated to the growing morass at the bottom half of America’s economy, you’re unlikely to be able to afford a newspaper subscription - especially during those time periods when the right is jacking up the private taxes they levy through speculation in energy.

The reality is the Republicans have gotten away with three poll taxes:  The cost of photo ID, the cost of a newspaper subscription, and the cost of a mortgage or rent payment.

I would note that some years ago - before the so-called “conservatives” started getting more cunningly professional/politically astute and organizing into entities like PNAC, the American Conservative Union, the American Family Association, the Conservative Caucus, the Family Research Council, etc. etc. etc., they quite frequently made two demands:

1)  That America dispense with democracy entirely for - in their words - “We’re not a democracy, we’re a republic!” assertion that was typically accompanied by (easily triggered) rants about democracy being “mob rule”, which itself is an ungentle way of saying that only the right people - the right’s people - were/are fit to either rule America or choose who should rule America.

2)  Voters should be “vested” in America…that is, they should have a “job” and/or some base amount of net worth - and they should own property (real estate) in America.

Methinks the so-called “conservatives” are attempting to enforce those desires right now, for….

1)  “Citizens United” is a shortcut to the hand-selection of who shall rule America because it enables the right to restrict who is elected to who they approve of.  You may have noticed that “Citizens United”-enabled advertising doesn’t have to be true - and any lie told can be funded anonymously.

2)  Increasing the number of times voter databases are “maintained” in an America that the right has made sure has ever less job security and economic mobility - and so ever less physical continuity in terms of residences and ever less “disposable income” for things like newspaper subscriptions - is a quick and dirty way of restricting the voter pool to the monied.

Now all the right has to do in those states that they control is start ramping up the cost of photo ID and - with, no doubt, lots of publicity about controlling fraud and counterfeiting - ramp up the number of times photo ID must be not just purchased but replaced.

The American right is actually easy to figure out; they are just another flavor of totalitarian.  Throughout human history totalitarians always tend to follow the same paths because they always have the exact same goal:  The restriction of all power (to include, under capitalism, wealth) to themselves.  Consequently the American people - and/or the Fourth Estate - should always look closely at anything the right supports in an attempt to discern how it will increase the power/wealth of the right and/or take power/wealth away from the American people. 

If more Americans (and/or journalists) had done that when the pseudo-Americans who are the right were crafting propaganda campaigns like “You’ll take my SUV from my cold, dead hands!”, “Voodoo economics will increase the flow of wealth to the many.”, “We must deregulate banking and Wall Street to compete!”, and “Some sectors will be negatively affected by free trade, but overall it will create millions and millions of new jobs!”, then America - democracy - wouldn’t be in the state of decay that we find it in today.

(I thought I’d get that in before I had to show an “approved” photo ID to post a comment on the web.)

My question is, “Who is proposing these requirements, and why?”  I, of course, believe that only US citizens are able to vote under our laws.  But I would prefer that we spend our time—with regard to elections—figuring out ways to make it possible and more convenient for more of our ciizens to vote. 
The present effort(s) seem to put barriers for voting in the way of some of our citizens.  These efforts should be rejected on that basis alone.

I have only one interesting and puzzling question. In the letter from DHS how did they know that 180,000 voters could be targeted? One illegal voter is simply one to many. We must protect the sanctity of the vote. I view this election as the most important one for which I have ever cast a vote and I am 67 years old. We must ask ourselves if we wish to remain a sovereign nation, we are at the tipping point. The fact is if I have not legally registered I will be denied the right to vote and that is as it should be. To legally vote I must follow the edicts.  Photo ID crucial. I must show one when I fly—records are searched when I applied for SS. Always when I took a new job I had to prove citizenship. The idea of allowing invaders of this country to enjoy the rights of those who are legal citizens is absurd and to allow them to enjoy that right illegally.

Our ever busy FL Gov was convicted of Medicare fraud BEFORE he was elected….....its open season down here.  Rules and regs are simply a minor inconvenience.

Artemus Martin

June 15, 2012, 9:34 p.m.

Governor Skeletor and his GOP cronies know they can’t win on ideas, so they improve their odds by trying to intimidate voters into thinking that voting is not worth the trouble. Kind of like the decision to drug test recipients of public assistance, offering to reimburse those whose tests were negative for drugs. So far, the state is hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole on that, with very few tests showing up positive. And because he refused to take a test himself, as a leading recipient of government largesse, we still don’t even know what Criminal Rick is smoking!

Gov. Rick Scott barely won election in 2010, only beating his Democratic opponent by one percent. He heavily outspent her by using money from his vast wealth, made from the healthcare industry. His Republican primary opponent was expected to win the nomination, but lost when Scott spent millions on television ads attacking him. Since he never was elected to political office before, Scott won by outspending both opponents.

He made much of his millions from those government programs Republicans hate, Medicare and Medicaid. No wonder that he is trying to get voter rolls to favor Republicans when he barely won the last time around. His favorability hovers in the low 30 percentile.

Rick Scott wanted to drug test every teacher, state employee, every person receiving government assistance, and food stamps. His wife’s company just happened to stand to make huge profits from drug tests. The U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and federal courts would overturn this.

Robin S. Kuykendall

June 16, 2012, 7:21 a.m.

We should expect other states to lust after federal databases on individuals, too. Florida is a bellweather. Bravo to all those brave local clerks for their integrity!  Thanks to the attorney generals who protect our ballot box!  Press from above, press from below, and squeeze out the fakers.

Nick: You don’t have a Constitutional right to use a Macy’s charge account. Any good conservative, of course, does know that we do have a right to vote.

How many non-citizen voters has Florida found?
One hundred and five, according to Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Department of State.

Read “Armed Madhouse” by Greg Palast.  It has a chapter about the republican voter caging scheme in florida in 2000.  The list had about 100000 names as I recall and his team contacted every one of them.  Found no illegals.  Did find lots of black soldiers serving in Iraq that did not recieve the registered mail sent to their home address.  The traitor republicans lied us into the war, then deprived some of those who served of their right to vote.  The people behind this should be tried and executed for treason.

I totally agree with you, tim barlow, if we make the penalties for denying legal voters their precious right to vote very large, we can eliminate Republican’s their tradition of stealing elections.

@bjean- Guess which states take the most in Federal aid and contribute the least in revenues? Red States, fool!

@Carml who yesterday @10:26 p.m. emoted:  “Rules and regs are simply a minor inconvenience.”

That is both the interesting thing about our American right and a demonstration of their kinship with Stalin and his totalitarians:  To the right, a rule or regulation is an abomination if it impairs their ability to accumulate wealth or power, but a rule or regulation that can be used to increase the right’s wealth and power or decrease the power of the American people - like Florida’s new filter on the electorate - is a useful weapon.

Makes you think playing Hasbro’s Monopoly with the right would be interesting…in-flight rule changes, they always get to be the banker and further get a cut of every transaction,  only they are entitled to “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, they can steal money from the bank and then when the bank can’t make change when they land on one of your properties the can not only duck the rent payment but repo your houses, etc.

One of the FL elections of supervisors admitted on TV the other night, that the FL voter rolls had been purged of some 50,000 voters through legal channels since 2008. they had reviewed the lists for the dead and ineligible during that period of time. they had done their jobs and this latest effort by Scott is a ruse to stifle and oppress voting. And of course, should the DOJ order be violatated it is the supervisors who could go to jail in the purge proceeds, and Super their in chief Rick Scott would be off the hook. It is his con. He walked away a free man after bilking Medicare out of millions. He never stands on the front lines, he’s in the back protected by his corporate shield or in this case the Supervisors’ of elections.

Many readers might lack the attention span to read all the way through ibsteve2u’s comment, but it’s very insightful and proves how a long view of history can make good sense out of current events.  For the seven-second skimmers, I offer this highlight:
“The reality is the Republicans have gotten away with three poll taxes:  The cost of photo ID, the cost of a newspaper subscription, and the cost of a mortgage or rent payment.”

I probably should write shorter comments…my initial thought was that ProPublica’s content would draw those who would take the time to read what was before their eyes in order to get the whole story and make a reasoned judgment.  But after months of observing that the right’s supporters generally just read the headline and go nuclear - reading nothing more - I’m having to reconsider.

Problem is short comments are best used in the way that the right uses the print and audio/visual media:  To cause an emotional reaction in order to make the reader’s/viewer’s mind shut down. 

That runs counter to my ethical system, for at the end of that path lurks totalitarianism.

Two nitpicks I have about the article:

1.  The cited New York Times article says there’s no voter fraud, but it’s citing the Bush administration’s Department of Justice, which said that torture was A-OK.  I bring this up not to rehash old complaints, but because torture, especially waterboarding, was how the Inquisition found all those witches.  So those of us who don’t believe in witchcraft don’t exactly consider the DoJ to be particularly on the ball.  (And that doesn’t even get into the Diebold stuff that applies directly to voting.)

2.  The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 is—by far—the most important issue, here, as Florida is in clear and direct violation, but it’s buried in the article.  Up until that point, reading along, my reaction was “limiting voters to eligible voters is what they’re supposed to do.”

We could argue whether notice in the newspaper (a what?) is outdated or ineffective, but the 1993 Act is pretty clear that, if you do this sort of thing, do it in the spring, basically, and Florida is not.


Nice spin, Propublica. How can anyone object to the stopping of illegal voting. How can anyone object to laws being upheld. The Obama admin, is inlaw suits with states that want laws upheld, REAL LAWS, that exist. And propublica is once againt showing it’s bias as a Obama supporter not a news reporter. Propublica is the Obama campaign.

I can register my dog to vote, and it’s practically untraceable.  I know because a lady here in Washington State did it as a protest and it took them 2 election cycles to notice. 

The idea that voter fraud doesn’t exist because it isn’t prosecuted is ridiculous.  It’s like saying the mafia doesn’t exist because we have not caught them yet. 

There is no single database with every US citizen on it.  In fact most states don’t really know who lives where.  Illegal immigrants typically use fake names and social security numbers, so it’s difficult to tell if they are voting or not.  Most have family living here legally, so it would not be surprising to find a good number of them voting along with family members who are legal voters.

To be fair it’s a complex issue… and the steps taken by Florida probably won’t stop the fraud.  Fraud is going to happen… especially in a state were a few hundred votes can make a huge difference.  Preventing it would require very restrictive measures and a level of intrusiveness I don’t think either party could pass.

Still… something has to be done.  The current system which allows Fluffy to register and vote… is clearly flawed.

Would LOVE to see Scott led away in handcuffs for his illegal actions.. .Hope I won’t have to wait until after the election.

That people can register a dog as justification for eliminating legitimate voters “by accident” doesn’t pass the smell test.

If someone buys a handgun, does that mean the ability to buy handguns should face dramatic and expensive restrictions even if it means the some Americans will “accidentally” lose the right to keep and bear arms?

The argument that everybody should be hammered because somebody bought a handgun is actually stronger than that idea that every voter should be hammered because somebody registered a dog.

Think about it: The possibility that the new firearm owner could commit a felony with that firearm is far, far higher than the possibility that the newly-registered dog could trot into a polling place, sign the book, trot into an election booth, navigate an electronic voting system, and trot back out…

After, apparently, stopping to lift a leg on the poll workers they’re so sound asleep.

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