Appeals Court: Rick Scott’s Voter Purge Was Illegal

CREDIT: Office of Rick Scott / Meredyth Hope Hall

Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL)

Gov. Rick Scott’s (R-FL) 2012 voter purge was so error-riddled that 30 Republican local elections officials refused to carry it out and his hand-picked Secretary of State had to apologize for it. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court issued a ruling repeating what the U.S. Department of Justice said at the time: because the effort came close to the 2012 elections, it was illegal under federal law.

To prevent major changes to the voting lists that could disenfranchise citizens by accidentally removing them close to Election Day, Congress included a provision in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act to prevent any purges during that time. The law, commonly know as the “Motor Voter Act” for its provisions allowing people to register to vote when they get their driver’s license, spelled out:

A State shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.

But despite this clear language, Scott and the Florida Department of State launched a statewide purge just 55 days before the November 2012 elections. Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall, a Republican who spoke out against the purge attempt, told ThinkProgress at the time that while she and other elections officials were working to ensure a smooth election, the state’s push to purge voters “just doesn’t help us whatsoever.” Still, Scott’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner told McFall and other supervisors that the names of thousands of non-citizen registered voters would be sent to them “no later than October 15” and that “Eligibility records maintenance is an ongoingrequirement of federal and state law and is not subjectto the 90-day moratorium preceding a federal election(in contrast to address list maintenance which is).” Even this pared-down list of “sure-fire” non-citizens included some U.S. citizens fully eligible to vote.

Though Florida voters were unable to get a federal court to issue an order preventing the purge at the time, a three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2 to 1, to overturn lower court ruling and found the 2012 purge attempt illegal. Writing for the majority, Judge Beverly B. Martin wrote that the “plain meaning” of the 1993 law covered situations like this one:

For programs that systematically remove voters, however, Congress decided to be more cautious. At most times during the election cycle, the benefits of systematic programs outweigh the costs because eligible voters who are incorrectly removed have enough time to rectify any errors. In the final days before an election, however, the calculus changes. Eligible voters removed days or weeks before Election Day will likely not be able to correct the State’s errors in time to vote. This is why the 90 Day Provision strikes a careful balance: It permits systematic removal programs at any time except for the 90 days before an election because that is when the risk of disfranchising eligible voters is the greatest.

In 2013, Detzner apologized for the error-riddled 2012 purge attempts, saying “It could have been better. It should have been better.” Still, he vowed to mount a new and improved purge — his “passion” and “moral duty.”

Last week, Detzner abandoned that effort, due to continued questions about the accuracy of the data available to him. Though he vowed to resume his efforts in 2015, Scott is up for re-election this November and, should he lose, his replacement would likely be able to appoint a new Secretary of State before any new purge.