Amid an increasingly partisan dogfight, Florida elections officials say the number of potential noncitizens they're examining on the state voter rolls is 180,000, a figure far higher than what was initially reported.
Florida's Division of Elections said Thursday that it's combing through this initial, mammoth list of names — which were flagged during a computer database search — to make sure its list is as clean and as small as possible. The state is then turning over smaller batches of the more-verified names to county elections supervisors, who are contacting the potential noncitizens to see if they can lawfully vote.
By the end of the process, the state could send counties as many as 22,000 names to check, one election source indicated, in a state with more than 12 million total voters.
Right now, local supervisors have been sent nearly 2,700 names, about 2,000 of which are in Miami-Dade, Florida's most-populous and most-immigrant heavy county.
Some Democrats accuse Republican-appointed Secretary of State Ken Detzner of engaging in a type of "voter suppression." But Detzner's office said he's trying to make sure no unlawful votes are cast — and it indicated that President Barack Obama's administration is stonewalling the effort by refusing to share Department of Homeland Security databases that could more easily show who's a citizen and who's not.
"We have been requesting DHS access since September of last year," said Florida's Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate. "We can do our checks. But we're restricted in the level of confirmation we can do. We need help from the federal government. But so far, we've been unsuccessful."
A DHS official would only say in an email that Florida's request poses "a number of legal and operational challenges."
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said in a written statement that DHS shouldn't cooperate.
"The Florida Republicans' desire to use Department of Homeland Security information — which is for the purpose of thwarting terrorists and not to engage in yet another round of voter suppression — would set a dangerous precedent," she said, "by not only taking away citizens' constitutional right to vote but by giving state governments free rein to invade innocent Americans' privacy."
In the Panhandle, Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller asked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a letter Wednesday to furnish its data to Florida to make sure only lawful voters cast ballots.
The effort in Florida was inspired by Colorado Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who said last year that he initially identified a pool of 16,000 potential noncitizen voters in his state. New Mexico — also run by a Republican secretary of state — searched and found 104.
Florida, Colorado and New Mexico are all immigrant- and Hispanic-heavy swing states that could play a crucial role in this year's presidential election.
The computer searches aren't a clear sign of voter fraud or of noncitizens being registered to vote. Florida, like the others, performed the searches by comparing voter rolls with its Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle database, which now reflects citizenship status of relatively new drivers. But the highway agency data can be out of date when it comes to the issue of citizenship. The highway database isn't updated to show when a person becomes a citizen.
Three people contacted by the Miami Herald on Wednesday said they became citizens after they got their IDs — but before they registered to vote. Still, they were flagged as potential noncitizens.
An initial database search by the election division yielded the 180,000 names. The division then began double-checking the identities of those names and whittled down its list. The names it sends to counties will grow by the day.
Those who have initially been identified by the state as potential noncitizen voters are being contacted by mail. They have 30 days to respond. After that, county elections supervisors will advertise their names in publications of general circulation.
If the voters still haven't come forward with proof of citizenship about 30 days after that, they'll be removed from the rolls. If some illegally cast ballots, they could be prosecuted for voter fraud, a third-degree felony. Voting in Florida is reserved for state residents who are over the age of 18 and are U.S. citizens.
State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican and head of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation, said the elections department and elected officials' offices should help voters flagged in error.
"If any of those are wrong, the elections department should make every effort to make it easier for the voter to prove their citizenship," Lopez-Cantera said. "I would recommend that if a voter needs help in the logistics of this, they would call a local official."
State officials point out that it's against the law to allow noncitizens to vote, but Democrats and liberals are suspicious of what they see as a "purge."
State Rep. Dwight Bullard, a South Miami-Dade Democrat, said targeting noncitizens on the voter rolls "is going to be problematic."
"You're purging based on name, and sometimes people who are active citizens will get caught up in that because they share a common surname with somebody else," he said.
"It's convenient for some, it would seem, to purge the voter rolls this election, especially for the party in power," he said. "I would foresee any number of lawsuits that could potentially take place for violations."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in a lawsuit to stop a voter-registration and early-vote crackdown bill passed by the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature, also expressed concerns about the "purge."
Similar arguments were raised by the liberal New York-based Brennan Center when it criticized Colorado's and New Mexico's secretaries of state for the way they hunted for potential noncitizen voters.
The states say the problems could be cleared up if the Department of Homeland Security made its database available. On March 8, Colorado's secretary of state, Gessler, wrote DHS Secretary Napolitano, demanding access to its data under a federal law that appears to require the federal agency to cooperate.
It hasn't done so.
"It's unfortunate it has to be a partisan issue," said Gessler spokesman Andrew Cole. "Only people who are eligible to vote should be voting in our elections."