State Politics

Bill to scrub voter rolls of non-citizens could make immigration status public

Why mail ballots are a problem in Florida, and how they can be a solution

The rising popularity of mail ballots poses a problem for a Florida election system built to handle in-person voting. Other states have fixed this by adopting a vote-at-home model.
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The rising popularity of mail ballots poses a problem for a Florida election system built to handle in-person voting. Other states have fixed this by adopting a vote-at-home model.

As several bills aimed at shaping the 2020 election are set to make a landing in the Legislature this year, a set of bills aimed at ensuring non-citizens are removed from voter rolls is set up for a floor vote.

SB 230 and HB 131 would require that each county supervisor of elections enters into an agreement with the clerk of the circuit court to receive, on a monthly basis, a list of potential jurors who have identified themselves as undocumented immigrants.

Each supervisor would then have to compare the information with the voter roll. The bill also requires the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to continue to give a similar list to the elections supervisors each month, which they already do.

The House bill will be heard for a floor vote on Thursday.

“The purpose of this bill is to assist election offices and maintain the accuracy of the official voter registration list,” said bill sponsor Rep. Amber Mariano, a Hudson Republican.

Some supervisors of elections across the state have agreements with clerks of court to share this information. If a person checks “not a citizen” on a jury form, for example, that person is contacted by the supervisors. They can then be removed from the voter rolls or, if they indicate that they are citizens, they can remain on the rolls. This bill would codify that voluntary relationship in all 67 counties.

Hillsborough and Collier counties, for example, send monthly reports to their elections supervisors with the names of people who indicated on a jury form that they are not citizens. In Hillsborough County, nine people were reported as non-citizens in the last year.

Currently, the Department of State identifies ineligible voters contained in official lists of registered voters every odd-numbered year by using change of address information provided by the United States Postal Service or from returned mail from registered voters who have not voted in the last two years. If the voter doesn’t update his or her information by the second general election after being designated as inactive, the voter’s name must be removed.

Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters said the idea of the bill is to make it “easy to vote, hard to cheat.”

“The fact that the Democrats are voting against it is mind-boggling,” the Sarasota Republican said. “This is a list that people themselves are clarifying themselves as non-voters. We want to make sure we protect the integrity of the system.”

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Opponents say the method is a problematic way to maintain voter rolls.

Common Cause Florida says the bill will cause more citizens to be removed from voter rolls because people’s status changes over time. If a non-citizen gets a driver’s license, for example, they may become naturalized before it’s time to renew.

“There is no database of citizens. There is no database of non-citizens,” said Common Cause chair Liza McClenaghan. “They’re points in time. They’re not long-term designations.”

McClenaghan said the outcome will be lower participation in future elections.

“You’re going to end up with a lot of false positives that are not appropriate for disenfranchising voters,” she said.

She pointed out what happened in 2012, for instance, when the Department of State created a list of more than 180,000 voters it initially determined were not citizens after an attempted match between driver license information and the voter roll.

The list of names was then narrowed to approximately 2,600, and later to 85. Of the 2,600 names identified, hundreds of citizens came forward to indicate they had been misidentified. A federal appeals court ruled then that former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration violated federal law by trying to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls too close to the 2012 presidential election.

The decision invalidated efforts by the Department of State to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls ahead of an election in which a Florida victory was crucial to President Barack Obama’s re-election.

Other groups said the law would impose a burden on supervisors of elections who would be required to spend considerable amounts of time matching data, issuing notices and conducting hearings in cases they think will likely involve eligible voters who have been incorrectly identified due to outdated records, administrative errors and deficient data-matching methods.

Michelle Kanter Cohen, of the Fair Elections Center, said she takes issue with outdated data as well as the fact that there aren’t safeguards to make sure people who are eligible to vote aren’t being inaccurately flagged.

She said all logistical problems aside, the idea that non-citizens are voting in significant numbers is untrue.

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“Voters all sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens or are otherwise qualified to vote,” she said. “What these efforts have shown is that there are very few instances where someone is purposefully on the voter rolls and voting when they aren’t a citizen. There’s been a lot of fear-mongering about that issue, but the reality is it’s almost mythological in a sense … reasonable list maintenance is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of voters’ rights.”

Immigrant rights groups also oppose the bill and say the law would make it easier for people to target undocumented immigrants because the information, once sealed by the DHSMV, would become public record under the Secretary of State.

The Florida Immigration Coalition is specifically opposed to the list of immigrants the legislation requires. It says the public list of undocumented people could contribute to hate crimes toward immigrants, which are already on the rise in Florida.

“This legislation perpetuates a false and dangerous narrative that non-citizens are illegally voting, and creates an easily accessible list of immigrants that can be targeted by those who seek to commit hate crimes,” said Ida Eskamani of Florida Immigrant Coalition. “Additionally, as lawmakers contemplate legislation that would implicate every level of state and local government with federal immigration enforcement, bills like this pose an even greater threat to the safety and security of our communities.”

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