Threaten to curb someone's right to own a gun in the state of Florida and you're likely to provoke a war — you'll be threatened, castigated, called un-American. You'll have to pry that gun from its Second Amendment-invoking owner's cold, dead hands, and you'll have to battle with legions of lobbyists and outraged citizens who'd rather shoot you than let you violate their constitutionally protected right to bear arms.
But threaten to take away someone's right to vote — a right that's at the very foundation of a democratic society — and what happens? Not much, judging from the recent attacks on voters' rights in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner have pushed to scrub voter rolls of alleged "non-citizens" who don't have the right to vote. By all accounts, their strategy is bizarrely flawed, has swept legally registered voters up in its net, and has been declared a violation of federal voting laws by the U.S. Department of Justice. Yet it continues.
Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the purge, despite being flawed, is legal. Scott and Detzner's action threatens to undermine our right to have any control over our government at all — but for some reason, it's awfully quiet out there right now. There are no lobbyists swarming the Capitol, and there aren't very many outraged citizens demanding a stop to this effort to pluck people off the voter rolls. A handful of progressive citizens groups — the usual suspects — are trying to drum up interest, outrage and support.
Where is everybody else on this?
"Well, that's a good question," says Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "I don't know. I'm equally frustrated by that. Where is the outrage? — to use what is now a trite phrase. I don't know. I'm sorry to say that Americans are too willing to wake up in the morning and read the newspaper and express their outrage to themselves over a cup of coffee and the morning paper."
It's not like nobody cares about the situation: In addition to the federal suit, the state is suing the federal government so it can get more information to more efficiently purge the voter rolls; and the ACLU and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are suing the state to prevent the purge from moving forward. But the civil rights organizations and government interests shouldn't be the only ones to care. You should care. We should care. Everyone should care — even if you don't live in the state of Florida. And here's why: The state's voter purge is not just a slimy strategy to win an election. It's an attempt to degrade our voting system, undermine our elections, and suppress people's ability to vote — particularly people who are minorities, many of whom are undecided voters or vote for more liberal candidates. The voter purge is an assault on our freedom and our self-determination — and it's spreading.
A Tea Party-backed effort begun by an organization called True the Vote is suing states to force them to enact purges of their own. The organization's mission, according to its website, is to "promote ideas that actively protect the rights of legitimate voters, regardless of their political party affiliation." Underlying the organization's rhetoric is the unstated conclusion that our government is corrupt not because money taints our legislatures and Congress, not because corporate interests are put before the interests of the citizens of this country, and not because our electoral system is set up so that the richest (not the best) candidates win elections. True the Vote's angle is that our biggest, most pressing problem is that some people who are registered to vote are either dead or illegally registered. The organization has partnered with Judicial Watch on its "election integrity" project and the two organizations have multiple states — Mississippi, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, Alabama and California — in their crosshairs.
"There appear to be more individuals on voter registration lists in these states than there are individuals eligible to vote, including individuals who are deceased," Judicial Watch warns on its website. "Judicial Watch's initial warning letters notified election officials in Ohio and Indiana that they are required by law to 'maintain accurate lists of eligible voters for use in conducting elections,' and that Judicial Watch is prepared to take legal action if election officials fail to clean up their voter rolls."
But according to Simon and other civil rights watchdogs, this isn't a matter of cleaning up the voter rolls at all — there are already laws on the books that address legal consequences for those who vote illegally. But they're not being heavily enforced.
"Clearly there probably are people who are illegally registered," he says. "And I do not know if maybe they have illegally voted, but that's a third-degree felony in the state of Florida if they did, and maybe they should be prosecuted for that, and if they were, maybe that would send the message to other people. So we can't let the governor get away with the idea that he is trying to protect the integrity of the electoral system. Of course the integrity of the electoral system should protected."
But not at the cost of your right to vote — our right to vote.
"What I find most offensive is the kind of 1984 Orwell speak, you know, knocking people off the voting rolls, knocking American citizens off the voting rolls as collateral damage in the search for the few people who may be on the voting rolls illegally," Simon says. "This is what this governor calls protecting the integrity of elections. Normal people would call it depriving legitimate voters of their right to vote."
So get mad, people. You should care. Here are five good reasons why we should be raising the roof over this brazen act of voter suppression.
1 Because it's happened before
Those even mildly taken aback by the blind chutzpa currently being exhibited by Gov. Scott and his purge-worthy defiance needn't look back too far in the Florida annals for another example of suppression via the voter rolls. On Nov. 7, 2000 — the day that brought us the term "hanging chad" — Florida's less obvious electoral fumble came in the form of tens of thousands of eligible Florida voters either being turned away at their polling places or forbidden to register altogether. In a twisted bit of conservative housecleaning logic, the state had already ordered a scrub of the voter rolls prior to Gov. Jeb Bush's 1998 gubernatorial election; in order to do so, the state paid Database Technologies Inc. (the only bidder on the contract) an unprecedented $2.3 million, which makes sense if you consider that 8,000 of those names ordered to be removed from the voter rolls were provided by Texas state officials working under Jeb's big brother Gov. George W. Bush. Fast forward two years later, and Jeb Bush's since-maligned Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered the names of 82,389 ex-felons who had relocated to Florida from states where voting rights are restored upon completion of their prison sentences in order to delete them from the voter roles. In other words, Florida broke the law. Subsequent studies found the accuracy rate of the database to be far below DBT's estimate of 85 percent (a Leon County assessment came up with a 5 percent accuracy rate), but even if DBT was correct, that would still mean that 15 percent of a population that votes 93 percent Democratic was not allowed the right to vote. Don't think that matters much? George W. Bush won Florida by a tiny margin of just 543 votes. It matters.
2 Because voting is a right, not a privilege
Our federal Constitution guarantees that citizens over the age of 18 cannot be deprived of a vote based on race, age or gender. The right to vote is a hard-earned one, even though most of us didn't really have to fight all that hard in our lifetimes to get it. Up until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was finally passed, many states implemented processes and obstacles that made it harder for people — mostly minorities — to cast a vote. We should have put that shit behind us more than 40 years ago, and yet politicians in Florida (and Texas and everywhere, basically) are continually looking for new ways to get around that law. Those same politicians are often the ones invoking our rights to bear arms and pray to the God of our choice, but they're remarkably silent on another of our most basic rights — the one right that actually gives people a say in who governs them and how they are governed.
One of the earliest documents drawn up that led to the founding of our nation — the Declaration of Independence — compiled a list of grievances against King George III, not the least of which was the failure of the king to respect the colonists' rights to have a say in how they were governed.
"In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms," the declaration states. "Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
And free people have the right to vote. Not the privilege. The right.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
But how are people to alter, abolish or institute new government if they can't participate in the democratic process created to help them do just that? Um. Exactly.
3 Because it's illegal
Critics of the governor's scrub-happy maneuvering have cited two very important laws meant to curtail intentional voter suppression: the 1965 Voting Rights Act and 1993's National Voter Registration Act. The former forbids states from enacting laws that prohibit voter participation based on race, forcing areas in the South (which had historically been responsible in large part for poll taxes and Jim Crow laws) to get preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice on any changes to voting laws. The latter, the NVRA, prevents states from adjusting their voter rolls within 90 days of a federal election, among numerous other pro-voter caveats. When a legion of voting and civil rights groups banded together to sue the state on the matter of its mass purge — citing, among various racial implications, the fact that there is a federal election within the next 90 days (that being the Aug. 13 primary), the response from the DOJ was swift and clear: The purge likely does violate the aforementioned laws, and should probably be stopped. Given a few days to mull it over in a festering conservative think tank, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner conjured the old red herring of "widespread voter fraud" that has yet to be quantified in any real manner. Then Florida went a step further, suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for not providing adequate information from a federal database for the state to purge even more voters. "I want everybody to vote ... but not non-U.S. citizens," Scott told CNN on June 12. "That's illegal." Of course, when your database is vastly inaccurate, such prudence doesn't apply.
4 Because it's racist
Don't believe anyone who tells you that it's not. Even if the process itself is blind — that is to say, even if the voter purge is being implemented purely on data and not on the color of voters' skin — the statistics are not. Latinos make up more than 58 percent of those contained in the flawed voter-purge list being used to scrub the rolls. It's no secret that the Hispanic vote has yet to be fully claimed by any party — Hispanic voters, pollsters point out, are often swing voters, less likely to vote along party lines. Which means they are unpredictable. Which means it's better to just keep them from getting to the polls in the first place, rather than take a chance that they vote and fail to vote for the "right" candidate (cough cough, Mitt Romney-bot).
Pair this anti-Latino scrubbing effort with Gov. Scott's earlier chipping away at efforts that mobilize the black vote, and ... well, the ACLU's Simon doesn't mince words:
"There is a racial aspect to this and all the other voting-suppression measures that were adopted by the Legislature and championed by the governor and now being defended by the governor," he says. "Cutting in half the number of early voting days and specifically banning voting on the Sunday before the Tuesday election, for instance. Please, somebody explain to me how that addresses voter fraud, rather than simply make it more difficult for working people to vote? And to make ... the Souls to the Polls program, which so many African-American churches were engaged in, impossible. That's what it was designed to do, and fraud is being used as an excuse to make it more difficult to vote, more difficult to register to vote, and more difficult to have your vote counted."
5 Because the corporations
The injury currently being added to the insult of Gov. Scott's wild-eyed suppression tactics comes in the form of increased political clout among billionaire CEOs and the regulation-fearing corporations they represent. Part of the ramp-up in influence comes by way of the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that concluded that corporations are people too, and, as such, have the right to give back-scratching billions to whatever political campaigns might tickle their fancy. But even with that ruling, the rise of the Super PAC — a far less transparent means of funding candidates and issues — has attracted the lion's share of shadowy corporate money. What that means is that voters in general need to avoid an influx of lies parading across their television screens in order to make their own informed choices. But, as is the nature of advertising, it also indirectly means that general impressions and brand recognition are being nefariously directed by corporate interests. You buy your candidates like you buy your soda these days. It's no surprise that many of these corporate interests have likewise been trying to suppress voter registration at the state level via one-stop lobbying organizations such as the American Legislative Executive Council, a back-room factory for derailing progressive policies. The only way to counter the wholesale purchase of the electoral process is to have a strong, informed and varied pool of representation on the voter rolls. This, dear reader, is exactly what conservatives do not want. They don't want you.
Erin Sullivan is the editor of Orlando Weekly. Billy Manes is the paper's staff writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.