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Commentary: Former beer lobbyist knows little about Florida voting

Dark mutterings about voter suppression and underhanded politics have been dogging Florida’s bungled campaign to excise non-citizens from the voter registration rolls.

Of course, someone — someone in a charitable mood — could shrug off this mess as innocent ineptitude.

While some non-citizens indeed seemed to have cast votes in past elections, a discomfiting percentage of the 2,631 supposedly illicit voters that the Florida Secretary of State told county elections supervisors to zap from their rolls this month turned out to be actual citizens (including a 91-year-old Brooklyn-born veteran of the Battle of the Bulge). Ken Detzner, best known as a beer-industry lobbyist before Gov. Rick Scott picked him to take over as secretary of state in February, admitted Thursday that his office’s “ability to validate a person’s legal status as up-to-date was limited.”

Perhaps his office should have thought of that earlier. The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections found the discrepancies so disconcerting that it on Friday it advised members to suspend the purge. “We’re erring on the side of voters,” said Associated President Vicki Davis.

And it could have been just another unhappy coincidence that Detzner’s office also forgot about the state’s obligations under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, before going ahead willy-nilly with his voter purge, particularly a voter purge based on a list that was 58 percent Hispanic. On Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent their least favorite beer lobbyist a letter, reminding him that federal law requires that major voting changes must first be reviewed by the U.S. Attorney General or a federal judge.

The letter from Justice also warned that the 1993 law requires that a state “shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.” With the state’s congressional primary election set for Aug. 14, Florida has blown the deadline. The error-plagued list of potentially illegal voters went out May 8, but the deadline (counting 90 days back from Aug. 14) to finish up Detzner’s purge would have been May 16.

But Detzner was a beer lobbyist (though he did hold this same job briefly, back in 2003), not a math whiz. His office’s flubs might have been utterly innocent. Small beer, as they say in the business.

Someone, feeling charitable, might conclude that none of voter problems necessarily indicate some underhanded plan by Florida Republicans to game the November elections. Except that on the very same day that the letter from the Justice Department showed up in Tallahassee, a federal judge across town issued an injunction against another bit of state meddling with the voter rolls. He said aspects of the state’s controversial 2011 law aimed at voter-registration groups were “harsh and impractical.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s order said the provision of the law (among other restrictions) that requires registration groups to turn in new voter registration forms within 48 hours of getting them or face up to $1,000 in fines amounted to “a virtually impossible burden.”

He wrote, “The short deadline [the old deadline was 10 days] coupled with substantial penalties for noncompliance, make voter-registration drives a risky business.”

The judge wrote, “If the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.”

The League of Women Voters, which had been registering Florida voters for 72 years, reported that it had ceased registration operations rather than risk the fines. The League and other civic groups filed suit in December, asking the court to intervene. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, after hearing the state’s defense of the new restrictions at the March hearing, Hinkle asked Detzner’s lawyer, “You don’t think there’s any constitutional right involved in going out and asking people to register to vote? Not even a smidgen?”

During the hearing, the judge heard a telling statement from one of the sponsors of the new voting legislation. “I want the people in the state of Florida to want to vote as badly as that person in Africa who is willing to walk 200 miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy,” Sen. Michael Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton, had said during the 2011 legislative session.

Judge Hinkle responded that Florida “doesn’t have an interest in making it hard to vote. That’s not a permissible goal.”

Hinkle also took issue with new “burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose.”

Actually, the added paperwork seem to have an obvious purpose: to discourage and intimidate voter registration volunteers. Hinkle noted that Detzner’s office has devised forms warning the volunteers that they risked “a felony and could be imprisoned for five years for sending in a voter registration application that includes false information, even if the registration agent does not know or have reason to believe the information is false.” (The judge added, “This is not the law; the form is just wrong.”)

He also puzzled over the crafting of the statute, key portions of which he called “virtually unintelligible.” Republican Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who voted against the bill in 2011, calling it “another poorly vetted piece of legislative slop.” She wrote in a February op-ed about the legislative process that led to its passage: “Many concerned citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike, contacted my office about what they perceived to be an attempt at voter suppression. What was going on? What were the true motivations?”

The senator wrote, “The voters may not have had much say in the legislative process, but they will have their day in court.” She predicted that a federal judge would toss key provisions of the law. Judge Hinkle did just that Thursday.”

With a voter purge based on outdated data, with the U.S. Justice Department intervening to stop Florida from flouting voter-rights laws, with a federal judge knocking down segments of a law that seemed designed, as he put it, “to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register,” there’s plenty of material to bolster talk of a voter-suppression conspiracy in Florida.

But somebody, feeling charitable, might think that the beer lobbyist charged with safeguarding our elections was only inept. Maybe all he needed was a little civic lesson (along with a federal court injunction) from Judge Hinkle.