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Florida governor plans to resume voter purge effort

Florida Governor Rick Scott greets an attendee in the audience before the start of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida
Florida Governor Rick Scott greets an attendee in the audience before the start of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott is planning a new effort to purge non-U.S. citizens from the state's voter rolls, a move that last year prompted a series of legal challenges and claims from critics his administration was trying to intimidate minority voters.

Voter protection groups identified a number of errors in the state's attempt to identify people who are not American citizens on Florida's voter lists months ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012.

The search also sparked several lawsuits, including one by the U.S. Justice Department, which claimed the effort violated federal law since it was conducted less than 90 days before the election.

"We were recently informed that the State plans to continue their efforts to remove non-citizens from Florida's voter rolls," Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said in a statement.

In a letter sent to Florida election supervisors last week, Maria Matthews, Florida's director of elections, said a renewed effort to "ensure due process and the integrity of Florida's voter rolls" was being planned.

"This is all part of our ongoing and continuing efforts to identify potentially ineligible registered voters," Matthews said.

Scott, a Republican, is preparing to run for re-election next year. He has repeatedly said the aim of any purge is to protect the integrity of the voter rolls.

Advocacy groups called the review of non-citizens a thinly veiled attempt to disqualify Hispanic and African-American voters, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates. A disproportionately large number of those identified in 2012 were either Hispanic or black, the groups said.

Last year, Florida officials said they had drawn up an initial list of 182,000 potential non-citizens. But that number was reduced to fewer than 200 after election officials acknowledged errors on the original list.

In identifying potential non-citizens, Florida officials sent their information to county election supervisors who then mailed letters to voters requesting proof they were U.S. citizens. If no response was received, the voter was dropped from the rolls.

The effort, which angered some county election supervisors, was the subject of lawsuits from five voter protection groups and at least two individual plaintiffs.

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he expected many county election supervisors to press the state to offer precise documentation that a voter may not be a U.S. citizen in any forthcoming review.

"If it will be a fairer process this time, it will be because the County Supervisors of Elections got burned last time and are more skeptical now," he said.

(Reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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