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State data lead to questions about nearly 2,700 voters

Nearly 2,700 potential non-U.S. citizens are registered to vote in Florida and some could have been unlawfully casting ballots for years, according to elections data.

The bulk of the potential non-citizen voters are in Florida's largest county, Miami-Dade, where the elections supervisor is combing through a list of nearly 2,000 names and contacting them. An analysis of a partial list of 350 names in Miami-Dade showed that about 104 have cast ballots going as far back as 1996.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough received a list of 72 names, Pinellas had 36 names and Pasco had 13. Local elections officials were trying to contact those people to determine if they were citizens.

Even if voters are on the list, it doesn't mean they're ineligible to cast a ballot.

Consider the case of Miami's Maria Ginorio, a 64-year-old from Cuba, who said she became a U.S. citizen in August 2009. She said she was angered by a letter she received asking her to go to the elections office to document her status. Ginorio, who said she typically votes by absentee ballot, is ill and homebound.

"I'm not going to do anything about this,'' Ginorio said. "I can't. I guess I won't vote anymore. I say this with pain in my heart, because voting is my right as a citizen.''

Citizens like Ginorio were flagged as potentially ineligible after the state's Division of Elections compared its database with a database maintained by Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which records whether a newly licensed driver is a U.S. citizen.

As a result, some citizens could appear to be non-citizens now because the DHSMV computer system doesn't automatically update when someone becomes a citizen, said Chris Cate, a spokesman with the Florida Division of Elections.

"We're not just looking at the matches from highway safety," Cate said. "We're doing a secondary assessment here before we send the names to supervisors of elections. You have to consider that a person's last contact with highway safety can be more than four years ago. Someone could have become a citizen in that time. So you can't presume someone's not an eligible voter."

Cate said it's not surprising the bulk of potential non-citizen voters are in Miami-Dade. With 1.2 million active registered voters, it's Florida's most-populous county and it has the largest immigrant population in the state.

Christina White, a deputy Miami-Dade elections supervisor, said the county is sending letters to all potential non-voters within 30 days and is asking them to prove citizenship.

The state's effort to clean the voter rolls is unfolding in a presidential election year in which perceptions of voting problems and potential fraud break down along partisan lines.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsored the election law and said he feels "validated" by the state's actions in keeping its voter rolls clean.

"We need to protect the integrity of the system and ensure that people who aren't eligible to vote aren't casting ballots," Baxley said. "The elections supervisors are going to send any names they find suspicious to the state attorneys, but the prosecutors have bigger fish to fry than this. So the only way to deal with this problem is preventative."

But University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, a critic of Baxley's law, said the state purges could block eligible voters from casting ballots.

Smith noted that 3,000 potential non-citizen voters is a small number compared with the state's 12 million total voters.

"This attests to the fact that there's very little voter-registration fraud," Smith said. "This purging can be a real problem."

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. Those who have been convicted of felonies can cast ballots if their rights have been restored by the state. It's a third-degree felony to commit voter fraud in Florida.

Neither the state nor the county's election office would release all of the suspected names, in part because the list contains personal data such as Social Security and driver's license numbers.

Of the partial Miami-Dade list given to the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times and CBS 4, less than a third of the potential non-citizens had voted, going as far back as 1996. About 39 of them are Democrats, 39 Republicans and 26 are independents or third-party voters.

About 13 of the voters cast ballots in the disputed 2000 presidential election, which was decided by 537 votes.

The state began unearthing potential non-citizen voters when the highway safety agency began coordinating with the elections division.

The post-9/11 federal REAL ID Act, which took effect in Florida in 2010, requires proof of U.S. citizenship to obtain or renew a driver's license. At first, the state unearthed 1,251 voters. The number now stands at 2,676. The list is expected to grow.

"Someone's ability to vote is sacrosanct," said Julie Jones, executive director of the highway safety agency. "We're all working together to make sure the process is valid, but our information is only as good as the last time somebody visited our office."

Jones said that because a driver's license in Florida is valid for eight years, a non-citizen could have gotten a license before 2010 and subsequently become a citizen, but her agency would have no way of knowing.

Others are in Florida on work visas or student visas, Jones said. They can get temporary driver's licenses, but they can't vote.

"I don't think we'll ever have a completely error-proof database," said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "There are just so many variables."

Pinellas got its list of 36 names a couple of weeks ago. So far, Clark said, two people have provided proof of citizenship, two more say they will provide proof and one person was removed from the rolls for confirming their status as a non-citizen. Thirty-one others have not yet been reached.

Anyone whose citizenship is questioned has at least 30 days to provide proof under state law.

"We don't just take them off the rolls," Clark said. "We send them a certified letter and ask for proof of citizenship."

Pasco County received 13 names. Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said the first two names he checked were able to prove their citizenship. They live in Ohio and Massachusetts, but vote in Florida.

"I'm just concerned about the end result," Corley said. "I don't want to be kicking people off the rolls who are citizens."

Miami Herald reporters Patricia Mazzei and Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.

State data lead to questions about nearly 2,700 voters 05/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 11:14pm]
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