Voter purges attack the wrong problem

There’s a time-honored tradition in American elections of stuffing ballot boxes and counting the graveyard vote. It probably wasn’t an issue in our first national election, but it’s been part of the political landscape ever since.

Spring & Summer, 2012
by Rob Lafferty

In states across the land, a lot of attention is being misdirected towards the problem of voter fraud. Ensuring an honest voter list is an important responsibility of state government, but the far greater problem of vote tampering is being ignored.

We face a greater risk these days to the integrity of our voting system. Computer-based voting systems that store the count on hackable hard drives make vote tampering easier than ever, but states that rely on the new systems aren’t focusing on that cyberthreat.

In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott selected a fellow named Kurt Browning to be Secretary of State. Browning was running an organization known as Protect Your Vote, Inc. Financial support for his effort to reshape voting districts came from the Center to Protect Patients' Rights, a political action committee funded by a small group of extremely rich folks who have pledged to spend $1 billion of their money to influence elections this year.

Scott then asked Browning to start purging ineligible voters from county voter lists all across the state. But last February Browning resigned rather than implement Scott’s plan.

"We were not confident enough about the information for this secretary to hang his hat on it," he explained.

In May, however, his successor, Ken Detzner, announced that 182,000 suspected non-citizens would be removed from the voting rolls, along with 50,000 apparently dead voters. Mission accomplished.

Then in June, all 67 Florida election supervisors agreed to stop any further effort to purge their lists because the data used to generate Browning’s list was flawed – and because the federal Department of Justice has decided that the process violated federal voting laws. The Voting Rights Act requires any state to get DOJ approval for changes to voting laws, and the Voter Registration Act prohibits removing voters from eligibility lists in the 90 days before an election.

A federal judge also issued an injunction against another new Florida law, one that caused the League of Women Voters to halt voter registration drives in the state for the first time in 72 years. That law required groups to submit registration forms within 48 hours of completion or pay a hefty fine for non-compliance The judge declared the law to be harsh, impractical and almost impossible to meet when forms were submitted by mail.

The Miami-Herald described the governor’s action as being undemocratic: “Florida seems to be heading back to those ‘Flori-duh’ days of purging voters who have every right to vote and finding ways to limit young people, immigrants and minorities - who typically lean Democrat - from voting with onerous rules on voter-registration drives.”

At this point, about 2600 names have been removed. Among the 1638 names purged in Miami-Dade County alone, 385 citizens who are legitimate voters have already been identified. Some of those folks have been voting for decades.

That small number seems insignificant in the context of a national election, but thanks to the Electoral College system we use to decide who will run our government, it matters. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida’s official vote count by a margin of just 537 votes. As many as 12,000 Florida voters may have been wrongfully denied the chance to vote that year.

Up in Wisconsin, a new state law requires voters to present photo identification proving they are who they claim to be. That seems reasonable at first glance, but two different state judges have suspended that law from taking effect because the state Constitution declares, "…every United States citizen age 18 or older who is a resident of an election district in this state is a qualified elector of that district…" regardless of whether or not they have an ID.

“Voting is a constitutional right,” stated one of those legal rulings. “Any statute that denies a qualified elector the right to vote is unconstitutional and void.”

A second ruling put the issue into perspective: “The court accepts fully the value of maintaining the accuracy and security of the ballot process. At this point, however, the record is uncontested that recent investigations of vote irregularities, both in the City of Milwaukee and by the Attorney General, have produced extremely little evidence of fraud, and that which has been uncovered … would not have been prevented by photo identification requirements.”

A dozen other states are taking actions that effectively suppress voter registration and voter’s rights. Meanwhile very little is being done to secure the results of electronic or digital voting systems – perhaps because very little can be done. The greatest threat to democracy in the history of our country lives not in any political philosophy, but in software that can be rigged beforehand and hardware that can be hacked afterwards. That, however, is a subject for discussion some other time…

Rob Lafferty, a former editor and news reporter in California, Hawaii and Oregon, now lives in the deep woods of Oregon's Coast Range. He can be reached via email at