Florida’s latest elections controversy began in the smallest of ways: a five-minute chat a year ago between Gov. Rick Scott and his top election official. At the time, about February 2011, the newly elected governor was touring the office run by then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who put on a presentation about Florida’s voting rolls and elections issues for the political newcomer. That’s when Scott — a Republican who campaigned as an immigration hardliner — asked a simple question: How do we know everyone on the rolls is a U.S. citizen? “I said it was an honor system,” Browning recalls. “That’s how it’s always been done.” “People don’t always tell the truth,” Browning recalled Scott saying. So Browning decided to find out how many noncitizens were actually on the rolls.
Now, more than a year later, the effort that stemmed from that chat has produced three federal lawsuits, widespread suspicion and bitter partisanship, echoing the recriminations of Florida’s controversial 2000 elections that still haunt the state today. The latest suit was filed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which claims Florida’s purge program violates two federal voting laws. Florida denies the charges.
To those on the political left, the voter purge looks like a concerted effort by Republicans to get an edge at the ballot box. But in the words and deeds of Browning, Scott and elections officials in Florida, the purge looks like a poorly managed program that became unexpectedly controversial to an administration filled with political newcomers.