This post has been updated.
Score one for Gov. Rick Scott, who is moving ahead with plans to ferret out “noncitizens” on Florida’s voter rolls. The tea party stalwart won a yearlong battle with the Obama administration last weekend when the Department of Homeland Security agreed to let the state check its voter registrations against a federal database of resident aliens in the United States. But along with ongoing efforts to crack down on voters without IDs and keep convicts away from the polls, it looks like a thinly disguised voter suppression tactic that could tip the electoral scales in the crucial battleground state. Scott’s communications director, Brian Burgess, bragged on Saturday that “all of Florida wins!” because of this development.
But are noncitizens actually registering to vote in any significant number? Fox News and friends have made it a pet issue as Republicans come to grips with a growing Latino population more likely to vote for the other party—and whose numbers the GOP might be happy to see diminish at the polls.
The DHS database that Florida will utilize—known as the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE—does not contain a comprehensive list of the estimated 11.5 million people who are in the United States without authorization; rather, it tracks resident aliens who have visas to stay in the US. Here’s how Scott’s plan is supposed to work: Florida will provide a number for each person it suspects of not being a US citizen, and then the feds will check that against SAVE to confirm whether the person is in the US illegally. And then the state will check its voter lists to see if that person is registered to vote.
“Access to the SAVE database will ensure that noncitizens do not vote in future Florida elections,” Scott said in a statement following the DHS decision. “We’ve already confirmed that noncitizens have voted in past elections here in Florida.”
Scott was referring to an attempt made earlier this year to purge Florida’s voter rolls—but the number of illegitimate voters found was statistically insignificant. Using info from the driver’s license bureau, state officials compiled a list of 182,000 suspicious voters, which was whittled down to 2,600. Of that number, 107—or about 0.001 percent of Florida’s 11.2 million voters—shouldn’t have been registered to vote. It turned out those 107 voters included more registered Republicans than Democrats. Moreover, that state list was also riddled with errors—full of longtime and recently naturalized citizens who were fully eligible to vote.
“I hate having these new citizens’ first experience with our process be one that frustrates,” one country elections supervisor complained to a state official about the sweep.
Scott’s moves could make a tight presidential contest in Florida even tighter. According to Nate Silver, keeper of the New York Times‘ Five Thirty Eight blog, strict voter ID laws can reduce turnout in an election by about 2 percent. Fishing for noncitizen voters isn’t exactly the same as requiring a state ID at the poll, but it’s in the same ballpark—particularly in a minority- and immigrant-heavy state like Florida. Florida has a new voter ID law, has used sketchy legal tactics to slow the pace of new voter registration drives, and has taken pains to keep convicted felons from registering to vote. Add in the fact that President Obama and Mitt Romney are polling neck-and-neck in the Sunshine State, and you have a recipe for another litigious November in Tallahassee.
There’s no word from the governor yet on how much time and money the checks will require, or whether the SAVE database is up-to-date on resident aliens who may have gained citizenship through naturalization. But given that SAVE aims to catch people who overstay their visas, rather than undocumented immigrants, there has been a marked shift in Florida Republicans’ rhetoric, focusing on “noncitizen” voters rather than “illegal” voters.
Scott’s voter purge strategy has turned out to be popular among voters, even as he has not. But even if it helps tilt Florida in Romney’s favor, it may not be enough to help Scott get reelected. He is saddled with low approval numbers, a high-profile loss in the Florida-led challenge to Obamacare at the Supreme Court, and a lieutenant governor fighting allegations that she had a lesbian affair with a staffer. “He doesn’t turn even Republican voters on the same way that [former Gov.] Jeb Bush did,” one pollster said of the uncharismatic governor. “There’s just something not there.”