TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott insists Florida's voter rolls must be scrubbed carefully to remove any non-U.S. citizens, but his administration is keeping secret a list of more than 180,000 voters whose citizenship may be in question.
Scott's elections agency is refusing numerous requests from voter advocacy groups and news outlets to release the list, months after the state released an initial list targeting 2,625 potential noncitizens. Many people on the first list turned out to be citizens.
The larger list has the potential to cause a bigger political controversy than the smaller one.
"I want to be very careful," said Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner. "It's individuals' names on there, and I want to make sure that people are treated respectfully. I want to be abundantly cautious about that."
In an interview in his office, Detzner could not cite a law that makes the list exempt from disclosure. Rather than make the list public, Detzner says he will ask Attorney General Pam Bondi whether it is a public record under Florida law.
By law, Bondi's agency gives advisory opinions to state agencies, cities and counties on the public records law.
Three months ago, the state created a separate smaller list by matching the list of voters with the state driver's license database.
The state sent those 2,600-plus names to 67 county election supervisors, with orders to remove anybody who could not prove citizenship status.
That set off a nationwide furor, with Democrats accusing Scott of trying to suppress votes, noting that a majority of people on the list have Hispanic surnames. Then came the filing of multiple lawsuits and complaints by election supervisors that the list is not reliable because it contains the names of people who are U.S. citizens.
More than 100 people were removed from the voter rolls before election supervisors suspended the review. Most did not vote in a Florida election.
In a recent commentary in several Florida newspapers, Detzner strongly defended the need to purge the rolls of noncitizens. "All it takes is one ineligible voter to neutralize the vote of an eligible voter," Detzner wrote.
Detzner said the 2,625 people had more interactions with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles than other names in the larger group — meaning they were more likely to be noncitizens.
About 1,200 people on the original list were in Florida on work or student visas, and had to renew their drivers' licenses each year. The other 1,400 were "more random," Detzner said.
With a presidential election slightly more than four months away, voter advocacy groups have been highly critical of Scott for refusing to divulge the information.
"We are troubled that Florida has not yet responded to our request to turn over its complete database of potential noncitizens on the voter rolls," said Diana Kasdan, legal counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "Careful scrutiny of this list is critical to ensure that eligible Americans will not be blocked from voting. Any attempt to clean the rolls must be open, transparent and accurate. Florida's purge has been anything but."
Detzner said there was no doubt about whether the list of 2,625 was public because it had been given to election supervisors. On the larger list, he said he'll abide by whatever Bondi's office says.
"If it's public record, everybody should have access to it," Detzner said. "We just want to be real careful."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.