Federal Appeals Court Holds Voter Purge Championed By Right-Wing Media Was Blatantly Illegal

Right-wing media champions of voter purges have been quiet in response to a federal appeals court's decision that Florida officials' attempts to remove noncitizens from voter rolls clearly violated federal law, which protects citizens from these overbroad and error-riden challenges.

Shortly before the 2012 election, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) and his Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner (R) undertook an effort to purportedly purge the state's voter rolls of noncitizens. The Department of Justice challenged the purge in court, arguing that Florida had violated federal law that prohibits states from booting voters off the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. This law is in place to prevent depriving citizens of the vote because of faulty database checks, performed without enough time to correct the state's errors.

At the time, right-wing media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and National Review Online were overwhelmingly supportive of Governor Scott and his attempts to block people from voting. WSJ's senior editorial writer Jason Riley dismissed the DOJ's challenge, since "[t]he Obama Administration sees racial animus and voter-suppression conspiracies in any Republican-led effort to improve ballot integrity." NRO contributor Hans von Spakovsky also dedicated numerous posts to the issue, calling the DOJ's lawsuit “spurious,” and evidence of “politics and ideology driving the legal decision-making” at the agency “as opposed to nonpartisan, objective analysis of the facts and the law.”

Von Spakovsky had even more to say on the subject. In a different post about the case in 2012, he complained about the DOJ's “lawlessness” in its attempts to restore the voting rights of affected citizens in Florida:

Time and again, the Holder Justice Department has exhibited politically driven law enforcement. But its latest instance of lawlessness is absolutely brazen.


This goes far beyond Holder's previous actions, such as belittling claims of voter fraud and trying to stop voter ID and other reform measures intended to improve the integrity of the election process. This letter would directly abet vote thieves in a key state as Holder's boss seeks reelection [in 2012].

But it turns out that the DOJ hadn't been quite as “lawless” as von Spakovsky had claimed. Earlier this week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Governor Scott's purge had, in fact, violated federal law. In its opinion, the court called the voter purge “far from perfect” because it resulted in some eligible voters wrongly identified as non-citizens and removed from the rolls. According to a report from MSNBC, the  purge appeared to target minorities and likely Democratic voters:

Florida conducted two separate efforts to remove non-citizens from the rolls before the last presidential election, drawing lawsuits from the U.S. Justice Department and voting-rights groups. Because the state used a flawed system that relied on often out-of-date motor vehicle records, numerous eligible voters were wrongly flagged--including a 91-year old World War II vet. They received letters telling them that if they didn't prove their citizenship within 30 days, they'd be taken off the rolls.

The Miami Herald found that “Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted,” while whites and Republicans were the least likely.

In its ruling Tuesday, the court stressed that removing voters within 90 days of an election doesn't give people enough time to fix any errors.

This is an important legal ruling for Florida, especially since Detzner and Scott had initially planned to conduct a similar purge before the 2014 election. According to the Miami Herald, Detzner finally “abandoned efforts to scrub the voter rolls of non-citizens” just last week, “in the face of overwhelming opposition from elected supervisors of elections.” That purge, which Dentzner had called “Project Integrity,” will fortunately not result in the same disenfranchisement as the last one. As reported by the Tampa Bay Times, out of 11 million voters, "[t]he 2012 list of about 180,000 suspect voters was based on driver's license data. The state soon whittled it to 2,600 and then to 198. Ultimately, about 85 voters were removed from the rolls."

Riley and von Spakovsky haven't gotten around to explaining how they got it wrong about both the threat and the legality of the voter purge, although it is likely that NRO, the WSJ, and von Spakovsky in particular will continue to find new ways to fear-monger about nonexistent “voter fraud.” Apparently he just can't help himself.

Photo via Flickr/Bettina Neuefeind under a Creative Commons License.