by Quin Hillyer
A spate of headlines a week ago involved a crucial legal battle between the U.S. Department of Justice (henceforth DoJ) and Florida concerning Florida’s efforts to update its voter rolls. Well, nineteen years ago, I was at Ground Zero of a legislative skirmish involving precisely the law over which DoJ and Florida are fighting.
First, let’s understand today’s battle. Florida wants to scrub from its voter lists the names of people not qualified to vote – people who have died (so nobody can vote fraudulently in their names), or people who have moved out of state, or people who never should have been registered at all because they are not U.S. citizens. This scrubbing of lists is essential for inoculating states against vote fraud.
One way to check rolls for non-citizens is to compare them to jury records. In Texas and North Carolina, hundreds of people who declined jury duty because they aren’t citizens nevertheless were found to be registered to vote – and many actually voted. And WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, Florida, found 87 people in just two counties who avoided jury duty this same way but who nonetheless voted there.
A federal law called the National Voter Registration Act, popularly called the “Motor Voter” law (because it requires states to offer voter registration at drivers’-license bureaus), has a provision in its Section 8 that requires states to clean their rolls. That’s what Florida was doing – but the Department of Homeland Security ignored Florida’s repeated requests for lists of documented aliens, terribly delaying the process. Florida finally found other sources of the information – but in the meantime, it wasn’t able to start correcting its rolls until several weeks ago. DoJ then sued Florida, claiming the Motor Voter law requires states to stop scrubbing their rolls within 90 days of an election – and Florida, with primaries in August, was now within the 90-day window. Never mind, of course, that the only reason Florida didn’t beat the 90-day deadline was because Homeland Security wouldn’t co-operate.
Florida, however, says DoJ is misreading the law anyway. As Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation explained at National Review Online.
"[T]he 90-day rule does not apply to registrants being removed because they are not U.S. citizens. Noncitizens are not mentioned in Section 8 at all for the simple reason that Section 8 deals with the removal of formerly eligible voters who have become ineligible for various reasons. … Individuals who are not U.S. citizens were never eligible to be on the voter-registration list to begin with [and thus can be removed at any time]."
Von Spakovsky is right. Here’s how I know.
It goes back to the Clinton Administration’s very first big battle -- which wasn’t about health care, or energy taxes, or spending. The first battle involved the Motor Voter bill, which Democrats in Congress introduced on the very first legislative day in 1993, several weeks before Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Motor Voter was assigned to the House Administration Committee – and Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston, the committee’s ranking Republican, had the job of deciding whether to object. I happened to be Livingston’s press secretary back then; Livingston told me a fight would take a massive public relations effort because the bill’s catchy nickname and broad media support had made it a popular initiative.
Livingston didn’t object to registration at drivers’-license bureaus, but he argued that other bill provisions (too numerous to list here) would promote vote fraud. Livingston’s legislative aide Tripp Funderburk had the brilliant idea to say that “Motor Voter” would better be described as “Auto Fraudo.” Using Tripp’s new catch-phrase, I started a media pushback, including a column in the Washington Times and many radio appearances for Livingston.
The pushback failed to kill the bill – but it did succeed in forcing acceptance of some anti-fraud provisions into the bill’s Section 8. Democrats didn’t strongly fight back against removing from the rolls those who were obviously ineligible, such as dead people and non-citizens. They objected to provisions we wanted that would allow states to scrub other categories of people from the rolls – such as those who had moved, but who otherwise would be eligible to vote somewhere else. The compromise we reached on the issue of otherwise eligible voters was the 90-day rule: Democrats were worried that people might be deprived of voting privileges just because of paperwork snafus when they changed addresses too close to an election.
Again, the 90-day rule was inserted in order to protect those particular voters’ rights – not to keep states from obvious, non-controversial list corrections involving dead people and non-citizens.
As a first-hand participant in shaping Motor Voter, I can say with assurance that Democrats and Republicans agreed back then that non-citizens shouldn’t vote. To do anything else would have been political suicide. Therefore, Florida and Von Spakovsky are right and DoJ is wrong – not as a matter of politics, but as a matter of fact.
But, as reported by whistleblowers J. Christian Adams and Christopher Coates DoJ official Julie Fernandes announced in late 2009 that the department would refuse to enforce Section 8’s anti-fraud provisions because “it has nothing to do with increasing turnout, and we are just not going to do it.”
Now that Florida is doing its job to enforce it anyway, DoJ is trying to stop the state’s efforts. DoJ’s endeavor is legally wrongheaded, and Florida is right to fight it.
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.
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