Efforts to Clean Up Registration Rolls Target Latinos in Swing State of Florida

Officials in the “swing” State of Florida have made waves amidst efforts to purge non-citizens from the registration rolls ahead of the up-coming 2012 presidential election. As ordered by Republican Governor Rick Scott earlier this spring, the Florida secretary of state’s office began comparing voter registration records to Florida Department of Motor Vehicles data on citizenship status. The Miami Herald and The Huffington Post have reported that around 180,000 of the 11.3 million registered voters (less than 2%) in the State of Florida have been flagged as possible non-citizens, 58% of who are Latinos, and 79% of who are registered as either Democrats or “no-party-affiliation”. Of that list of 180,000, county election officials have been notified to make contact with approximately 2,700 possible non-citizens on the registration rolls (.02% of the state’s registered voters). As the most populous county in the state, Miami-Dade has received around 2/3rds of those notices. Of those, The Miami Herald has reported that only 13 registered voters have identified themselves as non-citizens, and of those only 2 have been found to have voted in past elections. The U.S. Department of Justice has asked the State of Florida to cease and desist, citing provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Regardless, Governor Scott has remained committed to the cause.

The Governors’ tough stance on immigration policy both as a candidate, and early in his term as Governor, suggest that his strongly conservative views on immigration could be a motivating factor behind the purge. This said, what is somewhat confusing is that Governor Scott’s strident views on immigration have “vanished” over the course of his term. Moreover, national exit polling data from the 2012 Florida Republican Presidential Primary held in January show that this conservative constituency—the Governor’s political base—is surprisingly moderate (arguably liberal) when it comes to views on immigration (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Immigration Policy Preferences Among Florida GOP Primary Voters

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Source: National Election Pool, 2012 (N=2835)

Likewise, for conservative voters in Florida the economy trumps all other issues of concern, including immigration (see Figure 2). Given this political climate, it is somewhat surprising that Governor Scott has chosen to go “all in” on purging Florida’s registration rolls of non-citizens, against the will of the federal government. All told, his actions may simply boil down to his desire to placate those who have criticized his lack of action on immigration policy, while at the same time chipping away at the racially diverse and largely Democratic electorate in Florida. This is important, as a Latino Decisions/Univision News survey of Latino registered voters in Florida in January found President Obama to capture a wider segment of the Latino vote when compared to Romney.

Figure 2. Most Important Issue Among Florida GOP Primary Voters

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Source: National Election Pool, 2012 (N=2835)

Regardless of the Governor’s motivations, the Florida voter purge could hurt get out the vote efforts in the Latino community this fall. To date, the scope of the purge has been small enough that its direct influence on the Latino electorate will be marginal. However, over the months leading up to the presidential election, the purge might create an environment of fear and intimidation that very well could depresses Latino registration and voter turnout. As an illustration, the strong language in this letter sent to purge targets in the conservative hotbed of Collier County is enough to make any voter, citizen or not, question whether it is worth trying to stay registered and turn out at the polls this fall (particularly the second page of the letter). On top of all of this, against the wishes of the federal government the Republican statehouse in Florida is attempting to make the process of registering voters more complex and costly, and Latino voter registration in Florida has already declined by 10 percent since 2008. Given the importance of Florida in the Electoral College, and the razor thin margin between Romney and Obama there, these trends do not bode well for the President or for Latino representation in the halls of all levels of government.

Casey A. Klofstad is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. He has a forthcoming article with Benjamin G. Bishin, “The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?”, in Political Research Quarterly. His book, Civic Talk: Peers Politics and the Future of Democracy, is now available in paperback.

The commentary of this article reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.

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