Emboldened by Walker’s Recall Win, Florida’s Rick Scott Goes to War on Voter Registration

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Florida Governor Rick Scott listens as business leaders speak during a roundtable discussion in Miami on Aug. 19, 2011

The Department of Justice had given Florida Governor Rick Scott until Wednesday, June 6, to respond to its demand that the state stop a legally questionable purge of its voter rolls that was designed to identify noncitizens and other ineligible voters. Scott made the DOJ wait until that very deadline, but chances are the conservative Republican wasn’t trying to be rude. He may well have been waiting for a political tailwind from the north — from Wisconsin, where another GOP governor, Scott Walker, was facing a recall vote on Tuesday engineered by Democrats angry at his conservative, antiunion policies.

If so, Scott got what he hoped for: Walker handily defeated the recall effort. With that conservative momentum behind it, Scott’s administration on Wednesday sent U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s office a defiant rejection of the DOJ voter-roll order. This promises a presidential-election-year showdown between the Obama Administration and the nation’s most important swing state. “Governor Walker’s big win has juiced up the conservative base in this country,” says Florida-based GOP pollster Alex Patton. “Governor Scott had to have gained some confidence from it.”

(MORE: The Inscrutable Mr. Scott, America’s Least Popular Governor)

The Florida dispute may well be a key test of just how much juice the result in Wisconsin, where the contentious recall became a national issue, can pump into a conservative movement that lately hadn’t seemed as galvanized as it was in 2010. Despite Scott’s pledge to continue the voter-roll purge — which Republicans insist is needed to block voter fraud but which Democrats say is merely a ploy to disenfranchise minority voters in a critical battleground state — Florida’s 67 county-elections supervisors are refusing to cooperate. A big question is whether a resurgent lobbying push by conservatives, especially Tea Partyers, can wear down that resistance. “We’re going to keep the pressure on all over the state,” a Jacksonville Tea Party leader told the Miami Herald.

The voter-roll purge is the sort of aggressive challenge to Washington that Scott — a Tea Party favorite elected in 2010 whose first act as governor was his controversial rejection of $2 billion from the federal government for high-speed-rail development — has become known for. But the effort faces widespread criticism because its method, particularly the use of databases from state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, has so far produced a list of some 2,700 suspected noncitizen voters that many election supervisors, Republicans as well as Democrats, say is unreliable. (Only a handful of actual violators have been identified on it.) With memories of the 2000 Florida presidential-election recount debacle still fresh in their minds, supervisors like Ion Sancho, the party-unaffiliated head of elections in Leon County, insist that “we’re just not going to” excise voters at the Scott administration’s request.

The clash drew the attention of the Justice Department in late May, when it sent a letter to Scott’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, warning him that Florida was violating the federal Voting Rights Act by employing an unapproved purge process. The state, it said, was also flouting the National Voter Registration Act, which specifies that any voter-roll maintenance must cease 90 days before an election, which in Florida’s case should have been May 16 because the state is holding a primary Aug. 14. On Wednesday, Scott had Detzner fire back that the DOJ is misreading those statutes and that instead of obstructing Florida’s efforts to identify illegal voters, the Homeland Security Department should stop refusing states (illegally, Detzner contends) access to the federal citizenship database.

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So will the Wisconsin bounce be big enough to help Scott win over public support? His argument about access to the federal database is valid. But otherwise, it seems doubtful he’ll be able to rally Floridians or the rest of the country to back him against the DOJ or the state’s election supervisors. For starters, Scott’s approval ratings remain stuck in the dismal 30s — in large part because many Floridians feel that Scott, a multimillionaire former health care CEO who had never held elected office before, cares more about sparring with President Obama on the national stage than he does about fixing his state’s wrecked economy. Florida’s unemployment rate has only recently dipped below 9%.

There are other reasons Scott’s efforts to rein in government in Florida, which emulate Walker’s sharp cuts in Wisconsin, have produced mixed results at best. Scott had hoped to make the state’s public-employee union members (who, in fairness to Scott, do not contribute to their own pensions) chip in 6% of their paychecks for their retirement, but the state legislature pulled that back to 3% — and a state judge in March overturned even that measure, saying it violated existing public-employee contracts. In fact, courts have struck down much of Scott’s agenda. Most recently, a federal judge rejected a law requiring voter-registration groups to submit forms within 48 hours of signing up new voters, calling it a “harsh and impractical” barrier to the democratic process.

Walker, meanwhile, is being hailed for turning Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion budget deficit into a surplus. Ironically, he may be adept at restraining spending because, contrary to the Tea Party mantra that first-time politicians are the antidote to big government, he’s actually been involved in politics for almost 20 years. He’s simply a better politician than the novice Scott, whose learning curve in office has been as steep as the Everglades are wide. And no north wind is going to blow that reality away overnight.

MORE: Uncompromised: Why Scott Walker Survived His Recall

Correction: I referred to Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho as a Democrat in the original version of this post. Sancho is no longer a Democrat and is registered as No Party Affiliation. Apologies.