Civil Rights Groups Seek to Stop Florida Voter Purge Law

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Hans von Spakovsky, whose nomination for the Federal Election Commission is currently stalled in the Senate, may have left the Justice Department in 2005, but his influence remains. A prime example is in Florida, where the state legislature, evidently following von Spakovsky’s advice, passed a law that could disenfranchise tens of thousands of legitimate voters. Now civil rights groups are trying to stop the law before it affects the 2008 elections.

The law, scheduled to go in effect in January, would require the state to reject voter registrations if the state cannot match the information on registration applications to driver’s license or Social Security records. Because such records tend to be riddled with errors, tens of thousands of “perfectly eligible voters” will be knocked off the rolls, the NAACP and other groups charged in a lawsuit this September, resulting in “disenfranchisement-by-bureaucracy.” Compounding the problem, the law shortened the number of days that rejected voters have to present evidence that they’re a legitimate voter from three to two days.

Florida was just one of a number of states that adopted such a law after von Spakovsky, then a lawyer with the Civil Rights Division, issued a letter to Maryland’s attorney general in 2003 advising that the Help American Vote Act required states to reject voter registrations that did not match databases.

Joe Rich, the 40-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division who was then the chief of the voting section, told me that von Spakovsky wrote the letter without consulting him. Rich called it a “very strict reading of the law” which would “disenfranchise a lot of people” and compared it to Florida’s disastrous attempt to purge ex-felons from the voter rolls in 2000 (a purge that was also von Spakovsky’s brain child.)Sending out letters that would result in mass disenfranchisement without consulting the career lawyers in the voting section was a kind of hobby for von Spakovsky at the Justice Department.

One of the states that adopted von Spakovsky’s (or, as it seemed to them, the Justice Department’s) advice was Washington. But a lawsuit successfully blocked its law, similar to Florida’s, from going into effect. Justin Levitt, a lawyer for the Brennan Center, which has been involved in both lawsuits, said that only Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota still had such laws on the books.

The Florida lawsuit argues that not only would the law reject thousands of legitimate voters because of typos, misspellings, and the like, but that minorities are the most effected because Hispanic, Haitian, and African-American names in general tend to be more prone to transcription errors. The groups cite a report by the Social Security Administration that, “of 2.6 million voter registration records submitted to the SSA through February of 2007, 46.2% — nearly half of the records – resulted in a failed match.” Other state databases, such as New York, the lawsuit says, have failed to match approximately twenty percent of voter registrations to driver’s license databases. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Last week, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division wrote Florida’s secretary of state to request more information about a number of aspects of the law, including a measure that would reduce the number of forms of identification that voters can use under the state’s voter ID law. Under the Voting Rights Act, Florida cannot enforce any law with a substantial effect on voting without prior approval by the Department.

Rich, the voting section’s former chief, called such a letter “routine” and said it wasn’t a clear indication that the Department would reject the law. But interestingly, one of the areas that the Department requested more information about was its process of “verifying voter registration applications” — its system of matching registrations to other databases. That means the Department will be reviewing whether its own advice (thanks to von Spakovsky) has resulted in discrimination against a certain class of voters. Given the current leadership of the voting section in the Civil Rights Division, however, it seems unlikely that the Department would change its mind.

As for von Spakovsky, the hold that Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) have on his nomination to the FEC has resulted in a month-long deadlock, with no indications that a compromise is in the works. The term on von Spakovsky’s December, 2005 recess appointment expires at the end of the year.