Florida governor Rick Scott is attempting to engage in a purge of voters, requiring some voters to prove their citizenship within a limited time frame in order not to be disenfranchised, allegedly in order to address "vote fraud" that for all intents and purposes doesn't exist. The Department of Justice told Scott to stop this illegal vote suppression. Scott's response was to thumb his nose at the federal government and federal law. Predictably, the Department of Justice has responded by suing Scott.
The Obama administration's reaction to illegal voter disenfranchisement may seem like no-brainer. And, yet, just 12 years ago George W. Bush attained the White House in large measure because neither principle nor even self-interest could motivate Democrats to care about even more egregious disenfranchisement. The 2000 election was a sort of perfect storm of defects with America's irrational federal election system. And several of the factors that led to George W. Bush to get Florida's electoral votes and hence the White House although a majority of Florida voters intended to vote for Gore have gotten their due attention: an outrageous Supreme Court decision and Ralph Nader's all-too-successfully executed plan to throw the election to Bush have gotten the criticism they deserve.
But it's also crucial to remember a factor that has gotten much less attention: a successful purge of many legitimately eligible voters by Jeb Bush. As Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson have accurately described it:
Concerned about alleged voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election, Florida state officials hired Database Technologies, a private firm with Republican connections, to purge the voter rolls of suspected felons. "Suspected," it turned out, is the key word, because a substantial number of the purged voters turned out to be guilty of nothing more than the crime of being African-American. Although Database Technologies repeatedly warned that their methods would produce many false positives, Florida officials insisted on eliminating large numbers of suspected felons from the rolls and leaving it to county supervisors and individual voters to correct any inaccuracies. Clay Roberts, director of the state's division of elections, explained that "the decision was made to do the match in such a way as not to be terribly strict on the name." Indeed, the list was so inclusive that one county election supervisor found that she was on it. It is estimated that at least fifteen percent of the purge list statewide was inaccurate, and well over half of these voters were black. When these unsuspecting voters arrived at their precincts on November in order to exercise their "fundamental political right" to the franchise, they were turned away. Any protests were effectively silenced by the bureaucratic machinery of Florida law. As the U.S. Civil Rights Commission put it, "perhaps the most dramatic undercount in Florida's election was the nonexistent ballots of countless unknown eligible voters, who were turned away, or wrongfully purged from the voter registration rolls by various procedures and practices and were prevented from exercising the franchise." Those voters, wrongfully excluded from the rolls, were almost certainly more than enough to overcome George W. Bush's 537 vote margin in Florida. In addition, many African-Americans who did vote nevertheless had their ballots spoiled and thus left uncounted because they lived in counties with antiquated and unreliable voting equipment. The Civil Rights Commission estimated that black voters were nine times more likely to have their votes rejected than white voters.
What's striking, especially now that we know the massive effects this disenfranchisement would have on American and world history, is how complacent the Democrats were about it. There was very little protest, Janet Reno didn't file a lawsuit, and even after George W. Bush was elevated to the White House the Republican vote purge in Florida got far less attention than it merited. It's good that Eric Holder, at least, isn't forgetting either this history or his obligations under the law.