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Timing of scrubbing noncitizens from voter rolls worries Florida election supervisors

TAMPA — In February, county election supervisors got some news from the state motor vehicle agency: A database audit in April 2011 had identified more than 20,000 potential non-U.S. citizens on voter rolls.

But the Florida Department of State, which knew of the audit, didn't begin forwarding a portion of those names to county election supervisors until recently — just six months from the presidential election in November.

That yearlong delay has frustrated many election supervisors, who worry database scrubbing could be tainted by accusations of politics this close to an election.

Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted in the review, an analysis by the Miami Herald found.

"The integrity of the voter rolls is paramount," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "But at the same time, it would have been ideal to address this in 2011, April-ish. … I've had several people say to me, 'This doesn't look good.' "

Corley, a Republican, joined his colleagues in Tampa on Tuesday for the annual conference of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. One hot topic was the lists of potential non-U.S. citizens.

"Obviously, if it's going to be this close to an election, you have to question the motivation," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards, a Democrat. "On the other hand, we want to do our due diligence to make sure the voter rolls are clean and accurate."

Last month, the Department of State provided election supervisors with 2,700 names that had been red-flagged as non-U.S. citizens by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The motor vehicle agency had been working on a project to share driver's license information with other state agencies.

To be eligible to cast a ballot in Florida, a voter must be a state resident and a U.S. citizen with no felony record. Noncitizens can get driver's licenses, however.

A lot more names are expected. A working list of 180,000 potential noncitizens has also been generated, although state officials say they are continuing to double-check those names before sending them to the counties.

It's up to the county election supervisors to send certified letters to people on the lists, telling them they must provide documentation of their status to remain on the voter rolls. If they do not get a response, supervisors must run legal advertisements in newspapers before purging their names from the rolls.

Department of State spokesman Chris Cate said officials have spent the last year making sure the two departments' databases match up, as well as trying to vet as many of the names as they could. He said he did not know when that much bigger list would go out.

"The ultimate goal is to have the voter rolls as accurate for the election" in November, said Cate. "But we're not going to go so fast that we make a mistake."

So far the list has turned up some noncitizens who have been voting — but also some U.S. citizens who don't belong on it, including a Republican in Wesley Chapel who has voted in every election in Florida since 2004.

Craig Latimer, chief of staff for the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, said removing voters from the rolls is, by law, a time-consuming process. He said he doesn't expect to see a flurry of names purged before November.

"We don't want to remove somebody within 90 days of an election," he said.

Boyd Walden, the director of motorist services for the highway safety agency, spoke at Tuesday's conference and fielded a handful of questions about the project.

He said that the list of 2,700 consists of names most likely to turn out to be noncitizens. He said the larger list of 180,000 immigrants may include a large number of people who have become naturalized citizens since they last had to get their driver's licenses renewed.

Some election supervisors in smaller rural counties said the process had been pretty easy so far. In Jefferson County, which has about 9,300 voters, the state review hasn't yet turned up any potential noncitizens, said Supervisor Marty Bishop.

But he chuckled when asked about the timing.

"It's funny how it hit right before the election," he said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

Timing of scrubbing noncitizens from voter rolls worries Florida election supervisors 05/15/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 9:18am]
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