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Federal Judge Finds Fla. Violated Voting Rights

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Tuesday, a federal court blocked Florida's “no match, no vote” law after finding it violated voting rights, just six weeks before the state's presidential primary. The so-called “common-sense anti-fraud measure” required election officials to match voter registration application information – including names, birthdays, driver's license and Social Security numbers - against federal databases before registering a person to vote. Although the error-prone procedure put hundreds of thousands of Floridian registrants at risk of disenfranchisement each year and a federal court struck down a similar Washington law for the very same reason, Secretary of State Kurt Browning said he would “immediately appeal,” according to the Associated Press.

“Three civil rights organizations,” including Project Vote, asserted “the statute violates federal protected voting rights because the databases are unreliable and the matching process is prone to human error, computer glitches and other problems,” AP's Bill Kaczor reported.

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The court held that the state's law conflicts with both the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While HAVA requires states to obtain unique identifying numbers for applicants, it does not make “verification” of ID a prerequisite for voting eligibility as Florida had, marking a clear violation of the law. The court also held that the matching process would disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters “for reasons unrelated to their voter qualification under the Florida Constitution,” a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Read more in this Dec. 18 Project Vote press release.

“'This disenfranchisement, however unintentional, causes damage to the election system that cannot be repaired after the election was passed,' [U.S. District Judge Stephan] Mickle wrote. 'This impact is not 'minimal.' The harm to a disenfranchised voter would be impossible to repair.'”

Since January 2006, the process has denied 14,000 applications. While Browning recently acknowledged the number of potentially disenfranchised citizens, he said they represented just less than 1 percent of the 1.5 million forms processed since 2006. However, an overwhelming number of these applications are from minorities.

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Of the 14,000 denied applications, 43% came from Miami-Dade and Broward counties: “This may be because of the large number of Hispanics and Haitian-Americans in South Florida” and the issue with hyphenated surnames and unusual first names that are more susceptible to mismatches among the databases, the Miami Herald editorialized Monday. Time also reported on the issue of minorities disproportionately rejected from the voter rolls in this Dec. 14 article, which includes insights from Project Vote's election counsel, Brian Mellor. For example, while Latinos are just 15% of the state's applicants, they are 34% of unmatched cases. Similarly, African Americans make up 13% of applicants, but are 22% of “cases where the names or diver's license or Social Security numbers on the applications don't match those in the official databases.” In contrast, those identifying as white (66% of all applicants) account for only 29% of the unmatched applicants.

“The number of mistakes may be small, but Florida has a duty to make sure that every name included on its rejection list is, in fact, an unqualified registrant. Doing anything less than that would disenfranchise qualified voters,” the Miami Herald wrote.

The secretary of state “maintained the state law complies with federal ones and said he would immediately appeal,” Kaczor wrote. Browning said he thought it “'unwise to introduce such a major change in Florida's election procedure on the eve of Florida's presidential preference primary.'”

Without implementation of the “common-sense anti-fraud measure,” the state's election procedure would likely run smoothly, especially now that it will eliminate the potential disenfranchisement of legitimate voters. As for prevention of “voter fraud” - an exceedingly rare crime - there are safeguards already in place that prevent fake registrations from turning into real votes, something that "has not been a problem," Time reported.

"'If a false person submits an application for Dick Tracey, a person has to show up at the polls with Dick Tracy on the driver's license,'" Project Vote counsel, Mellor told Time. "'There needs to be a lot more than just filling out a fake voter application to get to vote.'”

“The judge noted that other means could be used to verify a person's identity including banks statements, utility bills or other government documents,” Kaczor reported, also noting that a federal judge barred Washington state from enforcing a similar law. “Washington later agreed to let people with unmatched information register but requires additional information before their ballots are counted.”

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Florida's “no match, no vote” “anti-fraud” measure preemptively addressed the phantom issue of voter fraud at the cost of barring thousands of eligible voters from registering to vote in 2006. In 2008, the state should work toward ensuring every citizen's “most basic right” – voting – is guaranteed.

Quick Links:

Click here to contact Fla. Secretary of State Kurt Browning's office to leave your own thoughts about his decision to appeal.

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