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Justice Department Orders Florida to Stop Voter Purge Targeting Latino, Democratic Voters

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The Justice Department has ordered Florida, a likely key swing state in the 2012 election, to end a controversial voter purge that has primarily targeted Latino, Democratic and independent-minded voters. The Justice Department says the process had not been cleared under the Voting Rights Act. Some Democratic politicians have expressed fear the purge could help Mitt Romney win the state in November. “What we’ve seen in Florida is an effort on a massive scale by Governor [Rick] Scott to suppress the vote, to make it more difficult for people to vote,” says Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). We’re also joined by Diana Sen, lead counsel for LatinoJustice, part of a coalition of civil rights groups working to protect Latino voters in Florida and elsewhere; and by Maureen Russo, a Fort Lauderdale resident who was among the voters initially purged even though she is a U.S. citizen who has voted for the past 40 years. “I believe it’s because I’m a registered Democrat,” Russo says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Justice Department has ordered Florida, a key swing state, to end a controversial voter purge that’s primarily targeted Latino, Democratic and independent-minded voters. Some Democratic politicians have expressed fear the purge could help Mitt Romney win the state in November.

Earlier this month, Florida began using an outdated driver’s license database to identify more than 180,000 non-citizens who were registered to vote. It later whittled the list down to 2,600 voters and forwarded those names to counties. Local election supervisors then sent letters to voters on the list, telling them to prove their citizenship within 30 days or be purged from the polls. This comes in a state where nearly 12,000 eligible voters were purged from the rolls after they were wrongly identified as felons in 2000. That year’s presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in Florida.

This time, the flawed effort to clean up Florida’s voter rolls meant numerous U.S. citizens were caught up in the purge. Among them, a 91-year-old World War II veteran named Bill Internicola. He and his wife Dolores expressed their anger with Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott.

BILL INTERNICOLA: I was flabbergasted, and so was my wife, who I’m married to for 60-plus years.

DOLORES INTERNICOLA: The governor, I don’t even want to talk to him. I’m disgusted and annoyed that this should happen in our country. He’s served his country. He’s been a good citizen. He’s voted his whole life. And now he should have this problem coming to Florida?

AMY GOODMAN: Similar reports have surfaced across Florida. More than 350 wrongly targeted eligible voters have been identified in Miami-Dade County. An investigation by the Miami Herald found that the largest groups of voters affected by the purge are Latino, Democratic and independent-minded voters.

Despite widespread criticism, Florida’s Republican administration has stood by its efforts. On Thursday, the Department of Justice stepped in to demand Florida cease its voter purge, saying the process had not been cleared under the Voting Rights Act. A letter from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division called for Florida to, quote, “please advise whether the State intends to cease the practice … so that the Department can determine what further action, if any, is necessary.”

For more, we’re joined by three guests. From Capitol Hill, Democratic Congressmember Ted Deutch of Florida, he’s one of six members of Congress who wrote to Governor Rick Scott demanding the state stop clearing its voter rolls since the process, quote, “fails to meet the basic standards of accountability.”

We’re also joined by Maureen Russo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She’s one of Congressmember Deutch’s constituents who received a letter telling her to prove her citizenship, or she could lose her right to vote, the vote that she had been involved with for the last 40 years.

And here in New York, Diana Sen, lead counsel for LatinoJustice, part of a coalition of civil rights groups working to protect Latino voters in Florida and elsewhere.

Congressmember Deutch, let’s begin with you. Can you tell us what’s happening in Florida?

REP. TED DEUTCH: Sure. What we’ve seen in Florida is an effort on a massive scale by Governor Scott to suppress the vote, to make it more difficult for people to vote in Florida. There is a list of 182,000 names that the governor has delivered to supervisors of elections throughout the state. Many on that list are U.S. citizens. Nevertheless, the governor has said that they need to be stricken from the voter rolls. You talked about Bill Internicola. There’s another 91-year-old World War II vet who came out yesterday, this time in the Tampa area, who also received a letter. It’s outrageous. It’s a brazen attempt by the governor and his administration to suppress voter turnout. That’s why we’ve gotten involved, and that’s why the news from the Department of Justice is so important.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this letter that was sent late yesterday to Florida from the Department of Justice, Congressman.

REP. TED DEUTCH: Sure, sure. The Department of Justice late last night sent a letter to the secretary of state telling the secretary of state—demanding that the secretary of state stop this purge for the reasons that you mentioned, because it violates federal law. The Department of Justice has given the state a week to report back, to advise DOJ how it is that they’re going to comply with this demand, and has made it clear that they’re going to have to reconsider when they see the results. If the state stops the voter purge, that will be great news for all of us. If, as I fear, they’ll continue on full speed ahead, the Department of Justice, my hope is, will proceed with a lawsuit to get an injunction and make this come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Maureen Russo, you’re a constituent of Congressman Deutch’s. How long have you been voting in Florida?

Maureen, are you able to hear me? Ah, OK, we’re going to—

MAUREEN RUSSO: Yes, thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us—

MAUREEN RUSSO: I’ve been voting—

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been voting?

MAUREEN RUSSO: I’ve been voting for 40 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Forty years. So, what happened? Can you describe the letter you received?

MAUREEN RUSSO: I received a letter asking me to prove that I’m a U.S. citizen. I’ve sent my passport, and I did receive a phone call saying that it was a mistake that they sent the letter, but I did ask for something in writing, so when I go to the polls—when I go to the polls in November, I’ll go there confidently, knowing that I have some sort of proof that I am a U.S. citizen and that I’ve proved that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was it who called you after you received the letter to say that that letter should not have been sent to you?

MAUREEN RUSSO: Dr. Brenda Snipes.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is she?

MAUREEN RUSSO: She’s the supervisor of elections in Broward County.

AMY GOODMAN: And did she explain why it was that you were being told you were purged from the polls if you couldn’t present the proper ID?

MAUREEN RUSSO: No, she didn’t explain anything. She just was apologizing to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it, Maureen Russo, that you believe you were targeted with this letter?

MAUREEN RUSSO: I believe it’s because I’m a registered Democrat.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you say that to the caller?

MAUREEN RUSSO: Excuse me? Did I say it to—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you say that to—to the woman who called you?

MAUREEN RUSSO: No, I did not. I really didn’t think at that at the time. But as the days have gone on, I am starting to think that more and more.

AMY GOODMAN: And what guarantee do you have that when you go to the polls you will be able to vote? Did they send you a letter saying that they had made a mistake? It was Broward County elections supervisor, Dr. Brenda Snipes, that called you personally?

MAUREEN RUSSO: Yes. No, I have not been sent anything, nothing in writing. I’m hoping that I get that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the Broward County elections supervisor, Dr. Brenda Snipes, who said on Thursday she’ll seek more information about the 259 potential non-citizens her office was alerted to.

DR. BRENDA SNIPES: We’ve had several people come to the counter, and they’ll say, “Well, I registered to vote, but I didn’t understand at the time.” We know we’ve had lots of different groups over the years to ask people to get registered to vote. And maybe they don’t understand English that well, and perhaps they signed up to say that they were interested in voting. But many of these individuals have never voted.

AMY GOODMAN: Diana Sen is with us, lead counsel for LatinoJustice. Explain how you’re involved in this case. And can you respond to Dr. Brenda Snipes?

DIANA SEN: We’re a civil rights organization based in New York but very active in the Southeast, particularly in Florida. We’ve sued the Volusia—Volusia County for not having ballots in Spanish in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. And we’ve been monitoring the situation. We’re particularly concerned that of the list, over 58 percent of those on the list are Hispanic. And we believe that this is targeting Latinos and that this is in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.


DIANA SEN: Well, one, it disproportionately affects Latinos, and it’s targeting Latinos, because we believe that, one, looking at the way that they’re finding—they’re compiling this list is they’re looking at the Department of Motor Vehicles database. And that database, in particular, one, doesn’t even ask—to get a driver’s license, you don’t have to be a citizen in Florida. So, you actually have a database that doesn’t even need or require citizenship for a license. And what they’re doing is they’re taking those records—some are even 12, 15 years old—and they’re taking that list and allegedly picking people that they think are non-citizens. At least that’s from what we’re being able to see. And many of these people have since become citizens, or, as you mentioned, the 91-year-old war veteran who of course has always been a citizen. So we believe that the lists are flawed. We believe what whatever database they use, which we think is the Department of Motor Vehicles, is outdated and flawed and doesn’t even compile the citizenship information that they’re looking into. And we’re very concerned, because obviously the Latino vote is very important. And voting is an American right, and everyone should be concerned about it.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Florida’s Republican Party chairperson, Lenny Curry, defended Florida’s attempt to purge thousands of voters based on what he appeared to admit was flawed data. This is what he said on MSNBC.

LENNY CURRY: This process is to ensure that non-citizens do not cast a vote in this election and in future elections. And to be sure, there are certainly some issues with the data. I heard your opening statement that an Army veteran was identified. He presented his paperwork and will not be removed from the voter rolls. But we can fix this. The Department of Homeland Security has a database that’s called SAVE, which tracks immigration from beginning to end. If President Obama’s administration would release the information in that database and let us cross-check, it would be less likely that people would be contacted unidentified that are in fact United States citizens. The administration doesn’t want to do that. And the valid question is why. Because they want to have—they want to politicize this and make this a political discussion rather than a discussion about operating under the rule of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida’s Republican Party chairperson, Lenny Curry. Congressmember Deutch, your response to this issue that it’s the fault of the Obama administration, who should be handing over immigration information from the Department of Homeland Security?

REP. TED DEUTCH: Right. It’s sad when you listen to that. I was on with him yesterday. And for him to claim that this is somehow a political issue, even as he tries to focus the attention on President Obama, is shameful. This isn’t a political issue. This is a situation where we have, we know, thus far, over 20 percent, at least—over 20 percent of the people who received a notice telling them that they’re not a citizen and that they don’t have a right to vote indeed are eligible voters. Statewide, what Mr. Curry was talking about, those few problems that he acknowledged, statewide that could mean that tens of thousands of Floridians will lose the right to vote. They’re going to get a notice that says, “Please provide us” — he said, “some paperwork.” And if you don’t do it within 30 days, we’re going to strike you from the rolls.” There are thousands of people who may go to the polls in November, only to be told that, thanks to Governor Scott, they’re not eligible to vote any longer. It’s not a political issue. I wish—I wish that Governor Scott and the people in his administration would stop making it one and address the real flaws with this program, that is—that has no accountability and that, the Justice Department rightly points out, is illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: Diana Sen, this issue of saying, “So, what’s the big deal? Then, just send in your papers,” this idea of putting the burden on the voter, rather than the state?

DIANA SEN: Well, Amy, these are registered voters. These are voters who have already properly registered. They’ve voted multiple times. And, you know, they have the right to vote. And I think the key here is we have to look at it from, if you vote and you are not a citizen, that is a crime. And people are not going to have criminal liability to vote if they’re non-citizens. So—

AMY GOODMAN: What about the demand that the Department of Homeland Security hand over information?

DIANA SEN: Well, one, we find that to be problematic, because, one, that puts the onus on the federal government, which is already overburdened by immigration matters. Two, we also believe that there are issues, as well, with matching of databases, particularly with Latino voters, which we know are being disproportionately affected here. Mainly with Latino voters, many have two surnames, two last names. There’s hyphens, and there’s very different issues with the names. And there’s a large possibility of error if you actually take the databases and change it. In fact, in Florida, they had this issue with the no-match vote, where when surnames didn’t match, they would try to kick out voters. And that had a disproportionate impact on Latino voters, because obviously there is error in the two surnames and the order and also the hyphenation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion with Diana Sen, lead counsel for LatinoJustice; Maureen Russo, who was a purged Florida voter who now has been assured by the Broward County supervisor that she will not be purged but has not received any letter assuring her of this, only received a letter saying she had to prove that she was a voter, which she had been doing for 40 years; and Congressmember Ted Deutch with us, Democrat from Florida. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Florida Congressmember Deutsch, I want to ask you about Florida’s new voter registration rules. On Thursday, a federal judge blocked part of the state’s controversial restrictions on groups conducting voter registration. A U.S. district judge in Tallahassee found Florida’s law, quote, “harsh and impractical” for imposing fines on groups that fail to turn in registration forms within 48 hours of collecting them, and he blocked enforcement of the deadline.

REP. TED DEUTCH: That’s right, and that was a very important step forward in our battle against the governor’s efforts to suppress the vote. It’s an effort that’s being waged nationwide, as you know. The voter suppression law that passed in Florida did include these provisions that have now been found unconstitutional, these provisions that deal with the issue of how to register voters. The League of Women Voters stopped registering voters because of these fines. So that’s an important decision.

But there are other provisions of the law that remain. The law cuts down on the number of early voting hours. The law also—the law also makes it easier to throw out ballots if there’s a change in signature, which affects seniors overwhelmingly. So, there is just this ongoing onslaught against the rights of voters to participate in our elections, and it’s no surprise that the targets, when you look at the impact that these laws have, skew overwhelmingly to groups that have historically voted Democratic. That is no surprise at all. And we’re seeing that all across the country. In Florida, it happens to be particularly difficult and problematic.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, Diana Sen, you were part of a Florida suit about Florida counties not having Spanish-language ballots. What’s come of that suit?

DIANA SEN: Well, we ended up settling that lawsuit, and now Volusia County has the ballot in Spanish. So we sued on November 4th, 2008, and we ended up settling in 2010. And then—and now the county is fully complying with Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act. The ballots are in Spanish. The notices are in Spanish. There’s Spanish-language assistance. There are Spanish-speaking poll workers. So we’re very excited about it. The community now can easily understand their vote, and the Voting Rights Act is applying and is protected in Volusia County.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a vote coming up, an election in August, is that right?


AMY GOODMAN: Where—and people will be voting for?

DIANA SEN: For the primaries, the congressional primaries in August.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you intend to monitor this at LatinoJustice?

DIANA SEN: Well, we generally work with the supervisor of elections. We have a great relationship with Ann McFall. We have a community leader, particularly from the Volusia County Hispanic Association, that was one of our clients. And they regularly meet with the supervisor of elections to ensure compliance and to ensure that Latinos have full access.

AMY GOODMAN: Maureen Russo, are you now working with other voters? Are you getting word out about what happened to you?

MAUREEN RUSSO: Through coming on shows, I have done it. I don’t really know how to do it. I would like to encourage everybody to return their papers and prove that they’re a U.S. citizen, like I have. And hopefully, in 30 days, I’ll get a letter saying that everything is good to go.

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