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Opinion: Florida's Shady History of Denying Justice

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(FILE) Democratic presidential candidate and US Vice President Al Gore talks about Social Security at the Civic Center in Kissimmee, Florida 01 November, 2000.

When Florida starts "purging" its voter rolls, there is reason to worry.


The Sunshine State is most famous for its 2000 election shenanigans: the cockamamie butterfly ballot, infuriatingly indecisive chads, and vicious battle over what to recount, what not to recount and when. Just as serious, if not as thoroughly covered, were the reports of voters turned away from the polls because their polling station location had changed, their identity was questioned or their name just no longer appeared in the rolls.

This wasn't just 2000 - stories of citizens being denied the right to vote have dogged Florida through the subsequent two presidential elections and it looks like Governor Rick Scott is amping up the problem with a widespread, poorly-focused and potentially illegal purge of the state's voters.

Following the outcry first from Floridians and then from national voting rights advocates, the Justice Department may step in to stop this process - as it should. While states have reasons and rights to protect the validity of their voter rolls, and while our Constitution grants states latitude in how they carry out elections, there is an unfortunate history in this country of states denying legitimate voters access to the basic act of American democracy. And there has been an important history of federal action counteracting those steps to ensure Americans their right to vote.

Proponents of voter purges argue that fake names, the deceased, and non-citizens make their way onto the lists and allow people to corrupt the system. As with most panic over voter fraud, the level of worry far exceeds the evidence of wrong-doing. Yet the extreme response has been disenfranchising. In addition to purges, many states have instituted stringent ID requirements, which discourage voters, depress turnout and disadvantage legitimate voters who don't have drivers licenses - often older and poorer citizens.

The problems these measures address are unfounded; the problems they create undo the progress that has been made to expand the franchise of democratic participation to all our citizens.

The anti-voter laws were promulgated by ALEC, the Conservative legislative think-tank that only recently suspended its activities in this area, as it faces continued public pressure and divestment by a string of corporate supporters (Johnson and Johnson backed out yesterday). Even without ALEC at the helm, Florida's Rick Scott is on a roll.

Of course, some supporters of these measures can point out that they are not trying to target wrong-doing, so much as cure a bureaucratic mess: lists get sloppy, names change - just as you need to clear out your own address book from time-to-time, so does a Board of Elections.

While there is credibility in this case, the problem is that the way purges are conducted have always proven just as sloppy - and more harmful. In a state like Florida, where formerly incarcerated citizens who have served their time and returned to society are not automatically returned their voting rights, the purge picks up many false positives, affecting eligible voters who might share similar names. As you can imagine, this disproportionately impacts African American communities where the rate of incarceration is far higher - and thus has a racially-biased impact if the purge is done too broadly.

Whatever Governor Scott's intentions, the history of denying people the right to vote is real, distressing and serious enough to tread carefully. It's also solvable if a state wanted to take steps to ensure people can vote, not to throw obstacles in the way.

From our earliest civics class, we all learn that voting is the basis of democracy. Despite the influence of money and politics, complaints of the closed process for getting on the ballot, and the many issues that never get debated in campaigns, many of us still believe in elections as the primary vehicle for democratic change. Therefore, when we talk about ensuring the right to vote, it's not only about security, but about access as well.