An effort ordered by Gov. Rick Scott to purge Florida’s voter rolls of noncitizens had Sen. Bill Nelson feeling a sour case of déjà vu.
Nelson, a Democrat, links the hunt for illegal voters with the 2000 election -- before anyone even uttered the word "recount" -- and Florida’s botched attempt to remove felons from the rolls ahead of election day.
He warned Scott about repeating the ordeal in a May 29, 2012, letter.
"In the 2000 Florida election, at least 1,100 eligible voters were wrongly dropped from voting rolls in an attempt to purge a list of felons," Nelson wrote. "Many of those who were dropped showed up to vote and were told they could not. And in a presidential election decided by 537 votes, that erroneous purge may have been a factor."
PolitiFact Florida wanted to compare the millennial purge with the most recent one, which the Obama administration ordered the state to halt on grounds it violates two voter laws.
We’ll examine the parallels and determine if Nelson offered an accurate recap of the number of voters affected by the infamous 2000 purge.
As part of their 1998 elections reforms, state lawmakers told the Department of State to remove felons and other ineligible voters from the rolls after thousands of corrupt votes, including 100 votes by felons, were cast in a Miami mayoral election.
The agency hired Boca Raton-based DTS Technologies, a subsidiary of ChoicePoint in Atlanta, for about $4 million to produce a list of probable and possible felons before the election. (Unlike most states, in Florida a felon’s civil rights are not restored unless he or she is granted clemency by the governor and Cabinet.)
The company warned the state that many people on the list would not be felons, but officials wanted DTS to use broad parameters -- that meant more felons off the rolls.
People whose names appeared on the list of more than 50,000 names had to prove their innocence or automatically be dropped from the rolls within several weeks of receiving written notice. Twenty counties ignored the state’s directive because they found the data unreliable, including the Madison County elections supervisor, who found her own name among suspected felon voters.
News organizations unearthed numerous accounts of law-abiding citizens turned away at the polls because they could not prove their innocence. Several thousand people appealed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and half were found to not be felons.
The precise damage is pretty hard to calculate.
"I’ve seen numbers all over the map," said Myrna Perez, senior counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is investigating the purge ordered by Scott.
Nelson’s figure comes from a 2001 Palm Beach Post investigation, the crux of which asserts at least 1,100 eligible voters were wrongly purged before the 2000 election -- "the collateral damage from an aggressive and ill-conceived state plan to prevent felons from voting."
The Post’s count included at least 108 citizens who were cleared after the election and 996 people who committed felonies in other states (they were supposed to retain their civil rights even in Florida).
Other tallies put the number of bad targets 11 or 20 times higher.
The NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in 2000 partly over the felon voter purge, arguing it disenfranchised black voters. A consent decree from the lawsuit settlement required the state to run its old felon lists with new standards.
The exercise resulted in 12,023 fewer Floridians making the felon list, meaning these people could have been targeted as felons and denied the right to vote, reported the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in 2003.
Some caveats: This figure does not mean 12,000 people were purged without cause. It means they could have been. Plus, some people within this class might not have been affected anyway because some supervisors decided not to enforce the purge.
A massive story about the 2000 election by Vanity Fair identified 20,000 people who were wrongly included. We don’t know where that number comes from and will update this story if we find out.
Nelson should have used that much bigger figure, said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho.
"I read the letter from Nelson and I laughed," Sancho said. "How come you didn’t vet this better? You could have had a way bigger number."
We asked the state department for any data it might have but did not hear back.
Twelve years later, Gov. Scott, who campaigned on a platform of cracking down on illegal immigrants, ordered state officials to clear the rolls of noncitizen voters.
The state department whittled a list of 182,000 potential noncitizens to about 2,700 by comparing driver’s license data, which contains some citizenship data, against voter rolls. County supervisors, again, were told to notify those listed by mail of the need to urgently prove their citizenship. And also like last time, some supervisors decided to sit out the purge.
Already, a Pasco County woman and a 91-year-old World War II veteran from Broward County have made headlines for being wrongfully targeted. In fact, elections supervisors found that most names on the list belong to citizens -- probably because the motor vehicle department’s citizenship information is out of date, the Miami Herald reported.
Thirteen Miami-Dade residents have disclosed they are not citizens and ineligible to vote as a result of the purge, the Herald reported. It’s for reasons like this that Republicans stand by the clean-up efforts.
"The implication of Nelson's letter is that eligible voters will not be able to vote, yet there is no evidence of this," said Kristen McDonald, RPOF spokeswoman.
Still, voter-rights advocates and some elections supervisors share Nelson’s ominous sentiment.
"It’s distressing and disheartening that this is happening again in Florida given the history of inaccurate voter purges of the past," Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project, which is a program within the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Rolling Stone waded into the issue with a scathing report, quoting Sancho as saying, "The state’s supervisors of elections are very, very disturbed."
"This was dumped into our laps at the 11th hour. Those of us who have been here long enough get this eerie similarity to the flawed felon databases of 2000 in Florida," he told the magazine.
Nelson precisely cites a Palm Beach Post analysis that put the total number of people wrongfully dropped from the voter rolls in 2000 at about 1,100. Other estimates of wrongful targets are much higher, and experts about the 2000 election tend to go with those. Trouble is, we don’t have exact figures.
However, Nelson’s broader point -- that a significant number of people were wrongly tossed from Florida’s voter rolls -- is valid. And he did say at least.
We rate his statement True.
PolitiFact Florida is partnering with 10 News for the 2012 election season. See video fact-checks by clicking here.
The Miami Herald Naked Politics blog, ‘Bill Nelson to Rick Scott: Your noncitizen "purge" is a "concern,"’ May 29, 2012
The Miami Herald, "South Florida Democrats say Gov. Rick Scott leading 'misguided' effort to purge voters from state rolls," May 29, 2012
Too Close to Call, Jeffrey Toobin, 2001
Email interview with author Jeffrey Toobin, May 30, 2012
Palm Beach Post, "Felon purge sacrificed innocent voters," May 27, 2001 (via Nexis)
Tampa Bay Times, "One woman's experience in Florida's targeting of noncitizen voters," May 29, 2012
Tampa Bay Times, "Of 7,000 felons purged from voting rolls, many are Democrats, blacks," May 23, 2012
Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, "State data lead to questions about nearly 2,700 voters," May 10, 2012
Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, "Noncitizen voter database has flaws, local elections officials say," May 14, 2012
Letter from voting groups to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, via Post on Politics
Interview with Kristen McDonald, RPOF spokeswoman, May 31, 2012
Interview with Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project within the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, May 31, 2012
St. Petersburg Times, "No telling if voter rolls are ready for 2004," Dec. 21, 2003
Interview with Myrna Perez, senior counsel in the democracy program at Brennan Center for Justice, May 31, 2012
Rolling Stone, "Florida GOP takes voter suppression to a brazen new extreme," May 31, 2012
Orlando Sentinel, "State scraps felon voter list," July 11, 2004 (via Nexis)
Tampa Tribune, "Ineligible voter list revives concern," May 18, 2004 (via Nexis)
Harper's Magazine, "Ex-con game: how Florida's "felon" voter-purge was itself felonious,"
March 1, 2002 (via Nexis)
Interview with Jessica Neal, NAACP spokeswoman, June 4, 2012
Salon, "Florida’s flawed ‘voter-cleansing’ program," Dec. 4, 2000
Vanity Fair, "The Path to Florida," October 2004
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