Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

Noncitizen voter database has flaws, local elections officials say

TALLAHASSEE — Florida election supervisors, at their annual convention in Tampa this week, find themselves focusing once again on a familiar and troubling issue: the accuracy and reliability of the state voter registration database.

It's not a problem of their making, and that only adds to their frustration.

As the elections officials convene, they are simultaneously seeking to verify the legal status of about 2,700 voters who were red-flagged by the state motor vehicle agency as non-U.S. citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Problem is, some people on that list can legally vote.

One of the people on the list is Manoly Castro-Williamson, 48, of Wesley Chapel, a U.S. citizen and a registered Republican who has voted in every election in Florida since 2004. She was one of 13 potential noncitizen voters forwarded to Pasco County by state elections officials.

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said he finds it troubling that Castro-Williamson, known as a "super voter" for her commitment to casting a ballot, now is being forced to prove her citizenship status just four months after voting in the Republican presidential preference primary.

Corley said she did, by faxing his office a copy of her Ohio birth certificate. But that was after she got an ominous-sounding letter from Corley that said: "You may be in violation of Florida Statutes by being a registered voter in the state of Florida," and telling her she was entitled to a hearing to challenge an adverse decision.

While the latest scrubbing of Florida's voter database is turning up some noncitizens who have voted, it also is disturbing to Corley that law-abiding people are being wrongly accused of breaking the law.

"We are the ones in the trenches taking the heat from the voters for something we have no control over," Corley said. "I'm a black-and-white kind of guy. This kind of a gray area really bothers me."

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles created the list more than a year ago, based partly on old data, and sent it to the Department of State, which oversees elections. Non-citizens can't vote, but they can get drivers' licenses. Before Florida adopted the federal REAL ID law in 2010, proof of citizenship was not required, and driver's license offices have become increasingly common places for people to register to vote in Florida.

The Department of State forwarded the 2,700 names to all 67 county election supervisors in the past couple of weeks. Agency spokesman Chris Cate said the delay was necessary so that the most "credible and reliable information" was sent to county elections offices.

In Tampa, where Hillsborough County received a list of 72 suspected noncitizens who can vote, three people so far have provided proof of citizenship and one man has already had his voting privileges revoked. A spokesman for the county elections office said Luis Ortega, 29, who was registered with no party affiliation, voted in the 2006 general election.

"He said he's not a U.S. citizen, so we've removed him from the rolls," spokesman Travis Abercrombie said. Most of the others on Hillsborough's list have Hispanic surnames.

Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill said two of the three names of voters she received were proven to be legal voters; the third person can't be found. In a state with nearly 11 million registered voters, "the system's not perfect," Gill said.

"We don't want people on the rolls who shouldn't be there, but we also don't want people getting bothered by letters questioning their citizenship if they are U.S. citizens," Gill said.

At conference session, election supervisors will get an explanation of the list from Boyd Walden, the director of motorist services for the highway safety agency. Walden, the state official most familiar with how the 2,700-person list originated, said he wants to hear their questions and resolve any lingering issues over voter database reliability.

"We need to work together," Walden said. "And if I've got a hole in my process, I'd like to know it."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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