Florida Voter Polls: Purges And Politics

Once again, the state is courting problems as it seeks to purge supposedly ineligible people from voter rolls.

Making sure that only eligible citizens cast a ballot is a fine idea in theory. In practice, it must be done carefully in order to avoid far-reaching mistakes — as Florida has proved twice before. Voter purges in 2000 and 2004 were riddled with errors; some legitimate citizens were deprived of their voting rights.

Florida law bars noncitizens from voting. The same goes for felons who have not had their rights restored. Periodically, deceased voters must also be removed from the rolls.

State officials and hired help compare various databases in an attempt to weed out ineligible voters. It’s an imperfect process, in which faulty data entry, misspellings, similar-sounding names, transposed numbers and such can cast doubt on legitimate voters.

Recently, the state notified county election supervisors about some 2,700 voters who might be ineligible, but further review has validated citizenship status for numerous people on that list.

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What’s especially troubling about voter purges is their potential to tilt the playing field on election day. This week, a Miami Herald computer analysis of election records found that “Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted in a state hunt to remove thousands of noncitizens from Florida’s voting rolls.”

These concerns are further amplified by state laws that make it more difficult to run voter-registration drives. A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, cited a study that found new registrations dropping by more than 81,000 (compared to 2008) since the new laws took effect last summer.

The statutes — which subject volunteers to onerous penalties if they do not hand in registration paperwork within two days — are under legal challenge. The courts should strike them down swiftly, because primaries are rapidly approaching. With redistricting, new precinct lines and other changes to deal with, voters and election workers don’t need any additional headaches over registrations.

Evidence of fraud is rare among the state’s 11 million voters. While guarding the integrity of the vote is important, it is just as vital to ensure that regulations don’t interfere with citizens’ right to cast a ballot.

Florida should focus on helping voters and stop getting in their way.