The Advancement Project has joined forces with the Fair Elections Legal Network, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Project Vote to file a lawsuit against the state of Florida to stop an initiative that attempts to remove “non-citizens” from voter registration rolls via a mass-purging process formed from questionable methods. The lawsuit would cover the entire state and would suspend the voter purging for at least a year. To date, dozens of Floridians and US citizens have come forward stating that they were wrongly identified as “non-citizens” and are at risk of losing their right to vote. The Department of Justice is also suing Florida over the program. We caught up with The Advancement Project’s co-director Penda Hair and asked her to explain the lawsuit, the problems with Florida’s voter purging initiative and the history of voter discrimination in the state.
Voting Rights Watch 2012: Now that this lawsuit against Florida has been filed, what’s next in the process to block Florida’s voter purging initiative?
Penda Hair: The lawsuit is filed in Miami with the federal Southern District Court of Florida. We are asking for a preliminary injunction to block the program. This would be an emergency ruling that will move more quickly than a normal civil suit, and we expect the court to take this up very quickly. We believe this is a case where the voters themselves can have their voices heard. We will bring Florida voters to court so they can make their case about how this program is affecting them. It’s a broad-based effort in terms of public education and activism and obviously the legal complaint. The Advancement Project has been doing voting rights work in Florida since the 2000 elections—I think this is our fifth or sixth lawsuit here—and we are very familiar with these kinds of shenanigans.
It is, in fact, well within the state’s right to purge ineligible voters from their lists. What exactly is wrong with how Florida is doing it?
One thing is that it is discriminatory on the basis of race and language status. The Advancement Project’s research has confirmed that 87 percent of the people on Florida’s purge list are people of color and more than 50 percent are Latinos. So while states are allowed to make their lists more accurate they can’t target people of color for purging in the process. Congress found that there has been a history of certain states using lists like Florida’s to target minorities for purging, so they have determined that certain types of massive systematic purges cannot happen ninety days before a federal election, and Florida’s purge program illustrates why Congress was correct in making that determination.
It’s unclear from Florida state government officials when this process actually started, though. It was announced to the public in May, but Governor Rick Scott says it actually began last year. How will a clear starting date be determined?
The facts are the facts. They probably did start investigating this last year and I understand that as soon as Scott was elected governor he was asking about how he could find people who aren’t citizens. But that doesn’t matter. Under the National Voting Rights Act, it is the day that the program is finished that makes it a violation of the law or not, and it can’t finish within ninety days of a federal election for purging purposes. [Florida has a primary on August 14.]
Florida state officials are saying they did not intend to target Latinos with this program, but does that matter, so long as it has a discriminatory impact?
We are suing under the Voting Rights Act Section 2 which prohibits policies that have discriminatory results. This was defined very clearly by Congress, which says you do not have to prove a bad purpose or discriminatory intent to show violation of VRA. The courts will look at the history of voter discrimination, the impacts of the new policy and the justification of the policy and then will determine under the totality of those facts if there is a discriminatory result. We’re confident that the courts will find that all of those factors line up—it has an overwhelming discriminatory impact, there’s a history of voter discrimination in the state and very little justification for doing this right now.
Of course they will argue that the justification is preventing voter fraud, right?
Let’s be real. There is no significant voter fraud in Florida. I’ve been doing voting rights work for twenty-five years and we always hear this mantra of voter fraud. What’s happening is the people who are attacking voters don’t want people of color participating at same rate and with the same ease as other voters, so they come up with one excuse after another and they label it under voter fraud, but the real fraud is that people aren’t being allowed to vote because this is voter suppression.
Other states are implementing or attempting similar voter purge programs. How would your lawsuit affect those states?
We hope that this lawsuit sends a strong, strong message to all states that this is illegal and they should not do it, and if they follow Florida’s program they will be sued.
Despite the requests from civil rights group and the Department of Justice to Florida to stop this purging initiative, there seems to be a lingering chilling effect, which might frighten people who could be mistaken for “non-citizens”—Latinos and Caribbean Floridians in particular—from voting. Have you already encountered this?
Absolutely, the state can put 2,000 people on a purge list and intimidate millions of people from voting. That’s what we are hearing from Latino and Haitian communities, that they are afraid that police will show up at their homes, and go through their documents just because they had the audacity to register for the right to vote. Florida is just flouting federal law, and Florida has done this repeatedly.
Most of the county supervisors of elections have decided not to comply with the state’s purge program, which means effectively there is no program. Why is it still important to move forward with this lawsuit?
What the counties have done is said we’ll halt this until legal clarification around the program is achieved. Well, we plan to clarify the legal situation. We want voters and Florida communities to know that they can vote without fear, and that is a real important message to send to counter the voter intimidation. We also have evidence, though, that two counties are continuing the program and are purging. We know that they are under pressure from outside activists like the Tea Party and Judicial Watch, as well as the state of Florida to continue purging.