Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

New noncitizen voter purge has its own problems, county elections officials say

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's county election supervisors are frustrated and dismayed by the state's latest effort to strip some suspected noncitizens from the voter rolls less than six weeks before a presidential election.

The second voter purge, a joint effort by the state and counties that unofficially began Wednesday, is not off to a much better start than the first one.

Some county elections officials say they are receiving names of people whom they have already removed from the rolls because they have admitted they are not U.S. citizens.

There's also a matter of timing. With 39 days until Election Day, local officials say they can't comply with notice requirements before removing voters, meaning some noncitizens could cast ballots in Florida, the situation Gov. Rick Scott wanted most to avoid.

The state flagged 198 voters of questionable U.S. citizenship by comparing a state database of drivers with a federal citizenship database at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The state released a list showing 38 of them have voted in elections, at least two of them in the Aug. 14 primary. (Earlier, the state said 39 people on the list had voted.)

The new list of names went public Wednesday, and backup documents are being sent through the U.S. mail to counties, who will get it in the coming days and begin tracking down people of questionable citizenship as they continue to prepare for the Nov. 6 general election.

Most people on the new list are in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Bay counties. All are a subset of an earlier list of about 2,600 suspected noncitizen voters that the state released in May.

In Orlando, Orange County elections chief Bill Cowles sees a redundancy: Five of 12 suspicious Orange voters on his new list have already been removed from the rolls after signing a document admitting they lacked U.S. citizenship.

"These people already signed the paperwork from the first go-round," Cowles said.

That first list was fraught with legal and political problems. The state suspended its purge effort of suspected noncitizens after elections officials discovered many were U.S. citizens, and opted to wait until it obtained access to the Homeland Security data.

Now, some officials wonder about the new list.

"We're on hold," said Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher. "When we get the backup documentation, we'll make a determination as to whether it's credible. It wasn't credible last time."

In Broward County, where 23 voters are listed as potential noncitizens, elections official Mary Cooney said there's not enough time to complete the removal process before the Nov. 6 election.

"While some individuals may submit documentation to remove themselves, the election would occur before . . . the process would be completed," Cooney said.

State elections spokesman Chris Cate said Florida has a high level of confidence that all 198 people on the list are not U.S. citizens. He said the purge effort would resume after the election, with other groups of voters being reviewed.

A voter who faces removal from the rolls must be sent a certified letter including a copy of all supporting documents, and the voter has 30 days to respond. If the letter is returned as undeliverable, the county then must publish a legal notice in a newspaper and give the voter 30 days to reply to the ad.

Three of five voters listed as potentially ineligible in Pinellas County remain on the rolls because the first purge process ended before their status could be determined. They were briefly removed and reactivated, said the county's deputy election supervisor, Julie Marcus.

"We don't really know the whole story. We're not going to remove somebody unless we clearly know their eligibility," Marcus said.

That means suspected noncitizens likely will be able to cast a regular ballot Nov. 6 unless they volunteer to be removed from the voting rolls. Elections officials who spoke to the Times/Herald said the suspected voters will not be asked to cast a provisional ballot.

Araceli Burgos of Largo knew she wasn't supposed to vote, she told the Times Thursday. She's not a U.S. citizen.

Burgos, 42, came to the United States illegally from Mexico 22 years ago. She said she doesn't know how, but when she got her driver's license years ago, she somehow signed up to vote even though she knew she was not eligible.

"I got a card to vote, but I never do, because I think it's only for citizens," Burgos said.

Another Pinellas voter on the list, 46-year-old Socrates Stavropoulos, no longer appears to live at the Clearwater address on his 2002 voter registration. A woman at the home Thursday said she has lived there for a year and hadn't heard of him.

No one answered the door Thursday at the Tarpon Springs home of the third voter, 66-year-old Frank Chorley.

In Pasco County, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley has asked the state attorney to look into two cases in which voters could not prove their citizenship. Illegally registering or voting is a third-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

In one Pasco case, Peter Muellerleile, 54, of Land O'Lakes said he was not asked to be a voter and said he believes the mistake occurred several years ago when he applied for a driver's license. He said a mark or smudge inadvertently was placed on a box indicating "U.S. voter."

"I never attempted to vote and never planned to vote," he told the Times Thursday.

Muellerleile is a Canadian citizen. He said an investigator for State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office stopped by his house several weeks ago and told him no charges would be filed.

Corley said he forwarded Muellerleile's case to prosecutors because he "took the extra step" of registering with a party, which indicated his registration was no accident.

Times staff writers Lee Logan and Stephanie Wang contributed to this report.

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