Why the Next Florida Voter Purge Will Be Different From the Last

After a failed attempt at clearing the voting roll of noncitizens in 2012, can Florida present evidence that this is a problem before the 2014 election?

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Joe Skipper / REUTERS

Florida Governor Rick Scott

Without the threat of immediate Department of Justice backlash, Florida officials are set to revisit the removal of noncitizens from voter rolls before the 2014 election. Although previous purge efforts have been thwarted, this time it just might work.

State officials in 2012 claimed to have a list of 182,000 voters who were ineligible to vote because of their citizenship status, yet still appeared on voter rolls. After further investigation, the list dwindled to a mere 198 across Florida. At the time, the state compared lists from the Department of Motor Vehicles that named licensed drivers who weren’t U.S. citizens to lists of people registered to vote. Florida, like many states, permits illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Now the State Department says it will develop procedures based on information gathered through a federal citizenship database known as the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program (SAVE), a process perceived to be more accurate. “We are now able to assess and further develop appropriate procedures before implementing responsible measures that ensure due process and the integrity of Florida’s voter rolls,” Maria Matthews, director of the state’s elections, said in an e-mail to election supervisors last Friday.

(MORE: Viewpoint: The Real Proof of Citizenship)

Opponents of the effort in 2012 claimed it targeted and intimidated minority voters, particularly Hispanics. According to a report by the Miami Herald, when the list was reduced to 2,600 people in May 2012, 58% of the identified noncitizens were Hispanic, though they make up 13% of the state’s 11.3 million registered voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Department of Justice filed separate lawsuits against the state, saying the purge violated the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, respectively. However, after the Supreme Court decision that invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, the district court in Tampa dismissed the ACLU lawsuit, freeing the state to further pursue the effort to clear voter rolls of noncitizen voters. “This is all part of our ongoing and continuing efforts to identify potentially ineligible registered voters, regardless of the basis for ineligibility,” Matthews said.

Voter purges are a common practice, with the Brennan Center for Justice reporting that 39 states and the District of Columbia dropped over 13 million people from voter rolls between 2004 and 2006 in efforts to ensure the accuracy of voting lists. Voters can be dropped for a number of reasons including dying, moving or appearing twice on the list.

The action has been the target of a backlash in Florida because of the impact the 2012 purge attempt had on Hispanics and Democrats, and because of a previous attempt in 2000.

Before the 2000 presidential election, over 1,000 voters were wrongfully dropped from voting rolls as a result of an effort to clear registered-voter lists of convicted felons. On Election Day, many of the dropped voters showed up to vote but were turned away from the polls.

(MORE: DOJ Makes First Move Against States After Voting Rights Ruling)

Because of the state’s past and Governor Rick Scott’s track record, the ACLU of Florida is skeptical. “It certainly will help that they’re starting with a more accurate database,” Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, tells TIME. “I don’t think that the state has learned from the mistakes of last time. They’ve learned enough to try to use different rationale to cover their goals, which is to make it as difficult as possible for the disfavored and minority groups to vote.”

Scott originally began his voter-purge effort on the basis that there were throngs of noncitizens participating in elections, rationale that appeared to be disproved by the small number of noncitizens who ended up on the final list of registered voters. “We know from just a small sample that an alarming number of noncitizens are on the voter rolls, and many of them have illegally voted in past elections,” Scott said in a June 2012 statement.

“We have always taken the position that benefit of the doubt goes to the voter, not to the state,” Ron Labasky, general counsel for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, tells TIME. “No voters are removed unless we’re very comfortable with their eligibility status.”

This time around, the state will be using the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ citizenship database, SAVE, to determine the status of voters.

In 2011, Scott requested that the Department of Homeland Security grant Florida access to SAVE. The governor later sued the department for access, which it received in July 2012.

According to the Stanford Law Review, however, SAVE still runs the risk of disenfranchising certain groups, including those who appear in DMV records as noncitizens and citizens who happen to have the same name as illegal immigrants.

Labasky says that if SAVE is properly utilized, the purge process can go a lot more smoothly this time around.

“Anybody whose status is in question is potentially losing a legal right guaranteed under the Constitution,” Labasky says. “This effort may be successful in the context that we will have better-quality information to work with and potentially move forward on.”

MORE: States Eye Voting Obstacles in Wake of High-Court Ruling