The state of Florida has an unfortunate history of disenfranchising voters. We all remember the “hanging chads” of 2000. Less well-known is how Florida wrongly labeled 12,000 eligible voters as felons, 41 percent of whom were African-Americans, and kicked them off the voting rolls that year, which could have very well cost Al Gore the election. Florida attempted another controversial voter purge in 2004, but was forced to scrap the plan after public outcry (history is repeating itself this year). The 2008 election, however, was noticeably smooth in the Sunshine State, producing a surprising victory for Barack Obama.
Following the 2010 election, Florida Republicans concluded that it was a little too easy to vote in the state. “I want the people in the State of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life,” said GOP State Senator Michael Bennett. “This should not be easy.”
Upon taking office in 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Republican legislature drastically changed the state’s election laws by preventing ex-felons from being able to cast a ballot after serving their time, cutting back early voting from fourteen to eight days, and severely restricting voter registration drives.
As I reported in Rolling Stone:
In May , the GOP-controlled legislature in Florida passed a law requiring anyone who signs up new voters to hand in registration forms to the state board of elections within 48 hours of collecting them, and to comply with a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements. Those found to have submitted late forms would face a $1,000 fine, as well as possible felony prosecution.
As a result, the law threatens to turn civic-minded volunteers into inadvertent criminals. Denouncing the legislation as “good old-fashioned voter suppression,” the League of Women Voters announced that it was ending its registration efforts in Florida, where it has been signing up new voters for the past 70 years.
The voter registration restrictions seem particularly ironic in light of the escalating scandal involving Strategic Allied Consulting, the RNC-funded GOP voter registration firm, run by a Republican operative with a history of bad behavior, recently accused of submitting fraudulent voter registration forms in Florida and elsewhere. The scandal makes Republican claims about ACORN sound more than a little ridiculous.
Florida Republicans invoked ACORN as the reason for the voter registration restrictions in 2011, even though ACORN was out of existence by that point. “Can you spell ACORN?” State Representative Dennis Baxley, chief sponsor of the law, told reporters at the time. “Or have you forgot all about that, and some of the problems that we had?”
Yet the law change appeared to be more about political payback than a sincere concern about voter registration fraud. “The first major imposition of restrictions on voter registration drives occurred in 2005, a year after ACORN’s community organizing work resulted in enough signatures to place a citizen initiative on the ballot to increase Florida’s minimum wage,” the Brennan Center for Justice reported. The 2005 law was subsequently blocked in court. But it was taken up again and passed by Republicans in 2011.
From my reporting:
The registration law took effect one day after it passed, under an emergency statute designed for “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare.” In reality, though, there’s no evidence that registering fake voters is a significant problem in the state. Over the past three years, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has received just thirty-one cases of suspected voter fraud, resulting in only three arrests statewide. “No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about,” said Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator who bucked his party and voted against the registration law. What’s more, the law serves no useful purpose: Under the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002, all new voters must show identity before registering to vote.
A fact-check from the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact Florida labeled as “false” the claim by GOP State Representative Eric Eisnaugle that “Mickey Mouse was registered to vote [in Florida],” and that voter registration fraud by ACORN in 2008 necessitated the new voting restrictions.
According to the paper:
Eleven people hired by ACORN to register potential voters near Homestead were accused of falsifying hundreds of voter registration applications.
ACORN actually turned in the hired workers after officials noticed the discrepancies in the cards. The group of workers turned in 1,400 cards, of which 888 were found to be fraudulent. Included among the fraudulent voter applications: deceased actor Paul Newman.
No one voted in the election using the fraudulent voter applications.
In May 2012 a federal judge blocked the most egregious provisions of the law for violating the First Amendment, and another judge formally overturned it at the end of August. Yet the damage had been done, as groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote were forced to shutter their voter registration efforts for a year during a crucial presidential election. “The entire year was lost for voter registration in Florida,” says Deidre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. “The law had a major impact on students, minorities and the elderly.” The voter suppression efforts worked as intended for the GOP—between July 2011 and July 2012, Republicans added 128,039 new voters to the rolls but Democrats registered just 11,365 new voters.
[UPDATE: University of Florida elections expert Daniel Smith says the numbers I linked to above, from the Florida Times Union, are not accurate. "According to the state’s official records, more than 155k voters registered as Democrats in 2011," writes Smith. "Slightly less than 138k voters registered as Republicans in 2011." But the law did hurt Democrats more than Republicans: "28.1% fewer Floridians registered as Democrats in 2011 compared to 2007, and 15.5% fewer Floridians registered as Republicans in 2011 compared to 2007."]
In a deeply sardonic twist, Republicans committed the only voter registration fraud that has occurred since the law was overturned. “It’s kind of ironic that the dead people they accused Acorn of registering are now being done by the RPOF [Republican Party of Florida],” Paul Lux, the Republican supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, told NBC News.
And, unlike with ACORN, Strategic Allied Consulting didn’t alert authorities to the voter registration fraud—that was done by local election officials. Prosecutors are now investigating the group for criminal misconduct. (The case hasn’t put an end to GOP hypocrisy about voter fraud, however. Last week the attorney general of Texas invoked ACORN to justify similar restrictions on voter registration drives in his state, even though no charges were ever filed against the group.) Maybe in 2013 the Florida legislature should pass legislation specially preventing Republicans from running voter registration drives.
Here’s why this scandal matters: the Florida GOP committed voter registration fraud while undermining the right to vote for everyone else—particularly minority voters, who have been historically disenfranchised in the state and are key supporters of Barack Obama and Florida Democrats. The common thread between these different voter suppression efforts has been to make it more difficult for minority voters to cast a ballot.
• Data from the 2004 and 2008 elections in Florida show that “African-American and Hispanic citizens are about twice as likely to register to vote through drives as white voters,” according to Project Vote.
• African-Americans in Florida were twice as likely to cast ballots during early voting in 2008 as white voters. According to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, 800,000 voters in Florida cast ballots during early voting hours in 2008 eliminated by the GOP. A federal court overturned the law in the five Florida counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
• An executive order by Scott mandating that felons convicted of nonviolent crimes wait up to seven years before receiving their voting rights disenfranchised nearly 200,000 Floridians who would have been eligible to vote in 2012. Blacks are 13 percent of registered voters in Florida, but 23 percent of disenfranchised felons. (See Brentin Mock’s excellent new story, “Has Florida Created a Trap at the Polls for Ex-Felons?”)
• Eighty percent of the so-called “non-citizen” voters on Florida’s inaccurate and discriminatory purge list were people of color (only one non-citizen on that list of 2,600 was found to have actually voted). Florida has restarted the purge on a reduced scale—but election officials may once again refused to implement it.
So remember this: Republican voter suppression efforts in Florida have been far more destructive than simply handing in a few hundred fraudulent voter registration forms.