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Florida quits controversial voter 'purge' program

Voters line up to show identification before casting ballots at Deliverance Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene in Miami.
Voters line up to show identification before casting ballots at Deliverance Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene in Miami, on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.

Florida has ditched a controversial GOP-backed program aimed at catching voters who are registered in multiple states, which some voting-rights advocates say can make it easier for eligible voters to be wrongly purged from the rolls.

It’s the same program whose data were used for an eye-catching recent report suggesting that more than 35,000 people may have voted in North Carolina and another state in 2012—a conclusion that was quickly debunked by numerous experts.

Florida’s decision to leave the Interstate Crosscheck system, created by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, was first reported Friday by the Miami Herald.

“The Department of State and Supervisors of Elections currently work with elections officials in other states to update registrations regarding residency, and we are always exploring options to improve the elections process,” Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, told msnbc in a statement.

The state’s move is striking because, under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Florida has led the way in aggressively removing voters from the rolls. A 2012 effort that aimed to find non-citizens purged numerous eligible voters, including a 91-year old World War II vet. A court recently declared the move illegal. Last month, Detzner announced that a new bid to cut voters from the rolls would be delayed until next year.

Crosscheck works by cross-referencing voter information from participating states, of which there were 28 at the end of 2013. Voters are matched by first and last name, date of birth, and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. States then receive lists of people believed to be registered in more than one state, as well as people believed to have voted in more than one state. The program was endorsed by a bipartisan presidential commission on voting earlier this year.

But many voting-rights advocates and election experts say that if used improperly, Crosscheck can lead states to remove valid voters. Part of the problem is human error. The program’s own guide for states says that “a significant number of apparent double votes are false positives and not double votes. Many are the result of errors—voters sign the wrong line in the poll book, election clerks scan the wrong line with a barcode scanner.”

But not all states have been careful about reading the fine print. Several Virginia counties last fall used the data to purge their rolls, after conducting only cursory investigations of their own, with the result that legitimate voters were removed weeks before the state's gubernatorial election.

Just as important, Crosscheck’s reports, which often generate large-sounding headline numbers, can be used to stoke fear of voter fraud with little evidence to back it up. That’s what happened recently in North Carolina.

Based on Crosscheck data, the state elections board announced that it had found upwards of 35,000 potential double voters—provoking a frenzy among state and national Republicans and conservative media. But that turned out to be the number of voters whose names and birthdates – not Social Security numbers—matched those of voters in other states. Experts quickly pointed out that with such a large data pool, the statistical chances for false matches are high. Even the much smaller number of matches that included Social Security numbers, 765, was likely largely the result of errors by voters or poll-workers.

Kobach is a former Republican operative and top aide to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. In addition to creating Crosscheck, he has led a legal effort to allow Kansas to require that people provide documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote—a move that will make registering far harder for many low-income citizens.