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Florida halts purge of noncitizens from voter rolls

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official is suspending a politically charged election-year plan to purge noncitizens from Florida's voter rolls, citing changes to a federal database used to verify citizenship.

The about-face Thursday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner resolves a standoff with county elections supervisors, who resisted the purge and were suspicious of its timing. It also had given rise to Democratic charges of voter suppression aimed at minorities, including Hispanics crucial to Scott's re-election hopes.

Detzner told supervisors in a memo that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is redesigning its SAVE database, and it won't be finished until 2015, so purging efforts, known as Project Integrity, should not proceed.

"I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the federal SAVE program Phase Two is completed," Detzner wrote.

Detzner sent his memo after three rounds of conference calls with supervisors, who endorsed his decision.

"It is a good idea to postpone the project until we're sure we have it right," said Citrus County Supervisor Susan Gill. "The closer it gets to the election, which I know you're well aware of, the more likely is it is that we'll get a lot of criticism."

"It's a wise decision because our elections aren't that far away," said Pinellas' Deborah Clark. "The time is not sufficient to start a project like this. . . . It needs to be done right or not at all."

"The state cannot afford a repeat of the 2012 list of alleged non-U.S. citizens, which lacked accurate, credible and reliable data," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.

Past efforts to purge the voter rolls of noncitizens ahead of the 2012 election caused a national furor, as elections supervisors resented targeting voters with data they viewed as unreliable and political groups said the removals disproportionately targeted minority voters. Some groups accused the Scott administration of seeking to scrub the voter file of people who might not be inclined to support Republican candidates.

The 2012 list of about 180,000 suspect voters was based on driver's license data. The state soon whittled it to 2,600 and then to 198. Ultimately, about 85 voters were removed from the rolls.

"It was irresponsible for Gov. Scott to undermine faith in our elections by creating fear that our voter rolls were filled with illegitimate voters when there was no evidence to suggest it," said Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida.

Voting rights groups such as the NAACP, League of Women Voters and the Advancement Project had been critics of the purge. They did not argue in favor of noncitizens casting ballots, but said the state-led purge disproportionately targeted minorities, ensnared some who could legally vote, such as a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran in Broward, was ineffective and wasted money.

"What we have seen from past efforts is that it has not been successful in identifying ineligible voters," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Voters. "The process we already have in place — supervisors work every day, all day, to clean our lists and keep them up to date — shows the current process is working very effectively."

Detzner reminded election supervisors they have a duty to investigate cases of questionable citizenship by voters.

That's nothing new, said Clark, the Pinellas supervisor. She said supervisors closely monitor voter lists to ensure that no ineligible voters can cast ballots and must submit reports to the state twice a year explaining why voters are removed from the rolls, such as death or a felony conviction.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida halts purge of noncitizens from voter rolls 03/27/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014 10:21am]
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