Broward Voter Rolls Case Has National Implications
August 7, 2017
This article by Larry Barszewski was published August 6, 2017 by The Sun-Sentinel.
A federal judge could soon make a national example out of Broward County’s elections office.
Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes has been on trial, defending her office against claims it isn’t doing enough to remove ineligible voters from the county’s voter rolls, a practice that could lead to voter fraud.
Snipes asserts that she’s making a reasonable effort to keep the lists up to date and is doing everything the law requires.
The county’s elections office is one of more than 140 nationwide that have been accused of having more registered voters than eligible voting-age residents. Several organizations have threatened lawsuits if the counties don’t get more aggressive at removing ineligible voters from their lists. The Broward case is the first to go to trial, and it’s seen as a possible precedent for others.
“Outcomes matter in this case,” said J. Christian Adams, who represented the American Civil Rights Union in its case against Broward County. “If there are problems in the rolls, it should be addressed.”
His efforts are opposed by groups that fear eligible voters might be scrubbed from the rolls, too, if an all-out effort to purge names becomes more important than ensuring that properly registered residents remain on the voter lists.
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom’s decision on what is reasonable and what extra obligations can be placed on elections offices is at least several months away.
At issue are the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the “Motor Voter Act,” which made it easier for people to register to vote by allowing them to do it at the same time they apply for a driver’s license. The law also requires elections offices to keep their voter lists accurate and current.
Cases have been decided about sections of the law dealing with making voter registration more accessible, but lawyers said the Broward ruling could be the first to say how aggressive elections offices have to be when it comes to removing bad names from its rolls.
The importance of the five-day trial that ended Wednesday was not lost on either side. Two attorneys for the elections office were joined by eight others supplied by a labor union and liberal advocacy group. The ACRU, a Virginia-based nonprofit, had five attorneys on its side.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and her office provided plenty of fodder.
The ACRU case focused on voter lists that included dead people, 130-year-olds, felons, duplicate registrations, invalid commercial addresses and that had “improbably high” voter registration rates. Snipes testified that some people who have been registered “are not eligible to vote and they slip through.”
“This is a huge job that has so many pieces,” especially when dealing with a roll of 1.1 million voters that is constantly changing, Snipes said. “Sure, you’re going to have mistakes.”
Her defense was the steps her office already takes to keep the lists accurate. Tens of thousands of ineligible voters are removed each year. Voters who have died, become felons or become mentally incapacitated are identified in data sent daily from the state. To catch voters who have moved out of the county, a national change of address search is done every two years. Mailers are sent out to voters regularly, and the office reacts to those that are returned undeliverable.
It can take years before some ineligible voters are removed from the county’s lists because of safeguards built into voter laws to guard against voters being disenfranchised due to data errors. For instance, reports of non-citizens have included names of immigrants who have become naturalized citizens. Felony rolls sometimes miss individuals who have had their civil rights restored.
Still, the ACRU says having a high number of ineligible voters on the rolls increases the opportunity for illegal votes to be cast. In a state where 537 votes decided its choice for president in 2000, when George W. Bush eked out a victory over Al Gore, even small numbers can matter, Adams said
Adams is also head of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, one of the groups along with the ACRU and Judicial Watch that are asking for stepped-up purges. Although the groups have a conservative bent, they said the issue should not be a partisan one. The integrity of the country’s elections are at stake, they say.
The group doesn’t claim that high registration rates mean illegal voting has taken place, but that could result if the voting lists purges aren’t improved, said Logan Churchwell, the legal foundation’s communications director.
“We’re not looking for fraud. We’re looking for the kindling for it, though,” Churchwell said.
Stuart Naifeh has seen the other side, where eligible voters were snared in voter removal efforts. He is a senior counsel with the advocacy group Demos, which teamed up with the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union to intervene in the Broward case on behalf of the elections office.
In 2012, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott pushed counties to use a national database of non-citizens to remove ineligible voters, some eligible voters that were SEIU members were erroneously purged from the rolls, Naifeh said. The original list had 182,000 alleged non-citizens that eventually was reduced to fewer than 200.
“We got involved in this case because we’re concerned that overly aggressive efforts to purge voters off the rolls result in removing eligible people, something we’ve seen happen in other states, including Ohio and Georgia,” Naifeh said. “Ohio conducted a purge that targeted people just because they hadn’t voted recently, and as a result thousands of eligible people had their registrations canceled.”
Burnadette Norris-Weeks, the attorney for Broward’s elections office, thinks she knows why the county was chosen — because it leans heavily Democratic and a purge of its rolls would more likely benefit Republicans.
President Trump, who has insisted without proof that he lost the popular vote last year because millions of ineligible voters cast ballots, has created an advisory Commission on Election Integrity to look into voter fraud. Trump appointed Adams to that committee.
Adams said the voter registration act has succeeded in opening up the registration process, but not enough is being done to make sure ineligible voters are being taken off the rolls in a timely manner, he said.
During the trial, former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler testified about ways Snipes could be doing more. She could use cumulative Social Security death information to determine if any voters have died out of state. She could access the state’s Driver and Vehicle Information Database, called DAVID, to more quickly identify voters whose addresses have changed. She could review jury f
orms that indicate when individuals are excused from service because they no longer live in the county or are non-citizens.
Adams said voters who have moved could be removed from the lists more quickly if the elections office sent out postcards that inactive voters could sign and return saying they no longer live in the county. He also suggested the office scan obituaries to help identify voters who die.
Snipes has made a few changes since the suit was filed. This year, she began receiving the jury forms from the clerk of courts and she is applying to use the DAVID system.
But Snipes said she is already doing what’s required. Also, much of the information Gessler mentioned is already being supplied to the county through the state, including the jury forms, motor vehicle information and Social Security death listings. Some of the suggested methods, such as reading the obituaries, would still require corroboration before a name could be removed.