Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott: Florida is "absolutely not" targeting minorities in noncitizen voter purge

Two Miami-Dade men caught up in a controversial voter purge could face criminal charges for possibly casting unlawful ballots in Florida elections, the Miami Herald has learned.

The cases of Neville M. Walters and Ramon Cue add a new layer of political complexity to Florida's contentious noncitizen voter purge, a focal point in the national debate over fraud and fairness in this year's presidential election.

On Friday, county elections supervisors showed so little faith in the state-led purge that their state association said they shouldn't cooperate. The announcement came just hours after the U.S. Justice Department ordered Florida to stop its effort due to two federal voting rights laws, partly because the purge could disproportionately affect minorities.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott wouldn't rule out fighting the Justice Department in court. "We want fair elections," Scott said. "We want people who have the right to vote go out there and vote."

The cases of Cue and Walters could strengthen his administration's hand because they suggest there's a good chance more ineligible voters are on the rolls and could cast ballots unlawfully if they're not stopped.

They were among 13 registered voters who acknowledged they weren't U.S. citizens, Miami-Dade's election supervisor says. Since elections records show each voted — Cue once in 1996 and Walters seven times since 2000 — the office forwarded the men's names to the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. The two could face third-degree felony charges.

"We are investigating the allegations," said Ed Griffith, Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman. "First, we need to make sure the data is accurate."

No easy task. Any large-scale effort to clean voter rolls is beset with false positives and errors due to misspellings and inaccurate addresses in a database of more than 11 million active voters, plus nearly 1 million more classified as inactive voters.

Cue, 53 and from Miami, told the Herald he's a schizophrenic, doesn't remember voting and said three others have his same name and birth date. "I've never voted a day in my life," Cue said. "I've lived in this house for 14 years and I have never filled out any paperwork regarding voting."

Walters couldn't be reached. The 13 total noncitizen voters identified so far on the Miami-Dade rolls are minuscule compared to the 492 people identified as citizens and, therefore, lawful voters.

Of the more than 1,600 potential noncitizens in Miami-Dade about 65 percent have cast ballots. About 72 percent have cast ballots of the 262 identified in Broward.

In all, the Florida Division of Elections has identified nearly 2,700 voters who may not be eligible to vote because they are not U.S. citizens. But, supervisors say, the vast majority found have turned out to be citizens.

Miami-Dade is the state's most populous county and has the largest foreign-born population. As a result, its residents are most likely to be flagged in a sweep of potential noncitizens.

Hispanics are the state's largest immigrant group. As a result, they account for 58 percent of those flagged as potential noncitizens, a Miami Herald analysis found. Hispanics make up 13 percent of the state's 11.3 million active registered voters.

Independent voters and Democrats are the most likely to face being purged from rolls. Republicans and non-Hispanic whites — the backbone of the Republican Party — are the least likely to face removal.

Based on the racial and ethnic disparities in who's targeted and who's not, liberals and Democrats accused Scott and his handpicked secretary of state of intentionally targeting minorities.

Asked Friday if the state is targeting minorities, Scott said, "Absolutely not."

"The Secretary of State's Office is doing the right thing," Scott said. "We want people to vote. But we want fair elections."

But, under the federal Voting Rights Act, the state needs to get permission before hunting for ineligible voters, Christian Herren, the DOJ's lead civil rights voting lawyer told the state Thursday. He also said the National Voter Registration Act bans purges within 90 days of an election, meaning Florida should have stopped May 16.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office says it will respond to Herren next week.

Detzner's office and the Republican Party of Florida chairman, Lenny Curry, have complained that another agency under President Barack Obama, the Department of Homeland Security, has blocked access to a federal database that would help the state more easily identify noncitizens.

So the state began comparing the voter rolls, instead, with a motor vehicle database containing citizenship information that has out-of-date information. As a result, some people are improperly flagged as noncitizens, such as the two lawful Broward voters — including a Battle of the Bulge veteran — falsely identified as potential noncitizens.

The uncertainty made the state's election supervisors association so nervous that they advised members to cease contacting voters.

"We haven't halted," said Christina White, Miami-Dade deputy elections supervisor. "We found the state list had a 33 percent error rate. But when voters like Cue admit they shouldn't be on the rolls, the county will remove them.''

Cue doesn't seem to mind. "I don't care about this country to know who to even vote for. I was born in Cuba many years ago," he told a Herald reporter. "Now please, let me eat."

Miami Herald staff writers Scott Hiaasen, Mary Ellen Klas and Michael R. Vasquez contributed to this report.

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