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Rick Scott Talks Voter Fraud
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and his Department of State have been talking about voter fraud in Florida since 2011, shortly after Scott took office.
"We need to have fair elections," Scott said Monday, justifying the identification of more than 2,600 "noncitizens" that the state recently urged county supervisors of elections to purge from the voter rolls. That followed a 2011 legislative rewrite of the election law, again in the name of preventing fraud.
"When you go out to vote, you want to make sure that the other individuals that are voting have a right to vote," Scott added.
But notwithstanding the concerns of Scott and Republican legislators, state records show that voter fraud simply hasn't been a problem for the past decade.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, 178 cases of alleged voter fraud have been referred to the department since 2000. FDLE's spreadsheet showed 11 arrests, but that apparently didn't include a 2009 bust of ACORN registration volunteers in Miami-Dade that yielded seven convictions and sentences ranging from probation to 72 days in jail.
"It's just not widespread," said Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections and the supervisor for Martin County.
Added Mary Cooney, public-services director for the Broward Elections Office: "While there may have been complaints about perceived voter fraud, I am not aware of any actual cases which were turned over to law enforcement."
The last big voter-fraud case goes back to Miami city elections in 1997. Law enforcement seized 5,000 absentee ballots, claiming that then-required witness signatures on the ballots had been forged. Forty-five people were charged, and a city commissioner went to jail.
But the law was changed in 2004 to remove that signature requirement — and since then, there have been no prosecutions for absentee-ballot fraud.
Ed Griffith, a spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said that additional cases specifically dealing with absentee ballots have been investigated — but none have resulted in charges, largely because of the law change.
"I've not really heard [of], since that law was changed, any prosecutors in Florida who really have been able to put together a case on absentee-ballot fraud," he said.
However, convictions for voter fraud are difficult to track; neither the state Division of Elections nor the association of elections supervisors has numbers.
It also didn't include investigations by the Attorney General's Office into voter-registration violations. Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has three open, including one of Panhandle teacher Dawn Quarles, who registered her students but didn't submit paperwork within two days as required by 2011 changes to election law.
Still, many elections officials argue that Florida elections are cleaner than ever, thanks to reforms instituted after the vote-count debacle in the 2000 presidential election.
A task force appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush recommended major changes. Ultimately, the Legislature required counties to use optical-scan voting machines, created statewide standards for recounts and provided $2 million for a centralized voter database. The law also allowed voters whose status was questioned at the polls to cast "provisional ballots" that are counted if they subsequently produce proof of eligibility.
Ion Sancho, the 24-year veteran election supervisor in Leon County, said the voter database has allowed local election officials to catch potential fraud before it occurs. New registrations are checked by the state against other state records to ensure that the person actually exists before the registration is official.
Fraud, he said, simply isn't much of an issue.
"You are more likely to walk out of your office and get hit by a bolt of lightning," he said.
Instead, Democrats and voter-registration groups argue that Republican concern about "fraud" is really aimed at "suppressing" minority voters — blacks and Hispanics — who tend to vote Democratic. They argue that was the aim of the 2011 reforms, which made it tougher for voting-rights groups to register new voters, restricted the number of "early voting" days and made it harder for a voter to change his or her name or address at the polls.
Then, last month, Florida officials announced they were purging the voting rolls of about 2,600 "noncitizens," identified by comparing voter rolls to a database of noncitizen declarations by people who have drivers licenses. Then, they began removing 53,000 others they said were dead from the rosters.
But in the process, they've swept up a war hero born in Brooklyn, plus hundreds of immigrants who have long been U.S. citizens. For example, of the 1,594 names sent to Miami-Dade — by far the most of any county — 447 had proved they were citizens as of last week, and an additional 32 had said they intended to do so. Only 13 said they were not citizens.
What's more, according to an analysis by the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, 64 percent identified themselves as Hispanic — roughly five times the 13 percent of all voters who say they're Hispanic — and 14 percent as black, non-Hispanic. Only 9 percent were non-Hispanic whites, who make up 68 percent of all registered voters. And just 21 percent are Republicans, compared with 36 percent of all voters.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice told the state the purge violated a law banning such actions within 90 days of an election and also required prior approval under the Voting Rights Act. Scott and the state have until today to respond.
Meantime, Davis' association of supervisors has advised its members to halt the program. And some, like Sancho, say he won't comply even if the state tells him to move ahead.
"I don't care what the state says," he said. "Doesn't matter to me. I don't work for them. I work for the citizens of Leon County."
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