TALLAHASSEE — A month before a statewide election, Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official will belatedly release a database of 180,000 voters whose citizenship is in question.
But in an about-face from an earlier and highly controversial voter purge effort, no one faces being removed from the state's voting rolls this time — meaning some noncitizens could cast ballots in the Aug. 14 primary.
Reversing course, Secretary of State Ken Detzner agreed the list of names is a public record after talking with Attorney General Pam Bondi's office.
Detzner had wanted to get a legal opinion from Bondi, but his spokesman, Chris Cate, said that in verbal discussions, it was agreed the database is public and must be released.
The list, however, will not be sent to Florida's 67 county election supervisors, who have the authority to purge noncitizens from the voter rolls.
That means that no one faces being blocked from voting before the primary, even if they're not a U.S. citizen.
The state list was created last year by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, based on outdated information from people who had obtained driver's licenses.
A part of the database containing about 2,700 names was sent to election officials in April. That led to charges of voter suppression by Democrats, and a series of lawsuits.
Election supervisors abruptly suspended the purge, concluding the list was not credible. Numerous cases arose of citizens being forced to prove their citizenship, and voter advocacy groups noted that more than half the voters on the list had Hispanic surnames.
Scott and Detzner have defended their efforts to purge noncitizens from the rolls.
"Irreparable harm will result if noncitizens are allowed to vote," Scott said on June 27, the day a federal judge denied a request by the federal government to block purging efforts.
Detzner's office said it would suspend a plan to distribute the 180,000 names to county elections officials while it continues to seek additional information on the voters' citizenship status from the federal Department of Homeland Security. The state has sued the federal government in an effort to gain access to the database, known as SAVE. The federal government says the state hasn't provided identifying information on the voters in question.
"We will not be sending any new names to supervisors to review until we have improved our own information by accessing the federal SAVE database," Cate said.
Nineteen news organizations, groups and citizens had asked for the list and all 19 had been denied it, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.
Others who sought the list include the Florida Democratic Party; U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Fair Elections Network; the Advancement Project; and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School. "The delay is just one more example of the state's complete lack of transparency," said Diana Kasdan, counsel for the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center. "This list should have been released months ago."
Deutch said: "This governor would rather make up the law as he pleases rather than adopt best practices from other states that maintain voter rolls without violating federal voting rights."
Cate said the list will be released to the public after it is reworked to remove voters' driver's license and Social Security numbers, which are confidential under the state public records law.
"I think it is a very important distinction to note that they are looking to vet the list further before submitting it to us for action," said Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel. "They're complying with the public records law, but not beginning the removal process."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.