Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Plenty misses, few hits in Rick Scott's search to purge non-U.S. citizens from voter rolls

Luis Ortega, 29, of Tampa, is the kind of person Gov. Rick Scott has been targeting.

He is not a U.S. citizen.

And he has voted in a Florida election.

Ortega's name was included among 2,625 suspected noncitizens on the now-famous voter purge list. Though discredited by county election supervisors, the list remains a topic of intense partisan debate and subject of a legal fight between Florida and the federal government.

Scott says he's determined to preserve the integrity of the voting process by eliminating noncitizens from the rolls.

So far, Ortega is the only noncitizen in the Tampa Bay area who is known to have cast a vote. And just a handful have done so across the state, according to a Times/Herald review of voter information from Florida's largest counties.

As local elections supervisors suspend county-by-county searches for noncitizens, calling the state's data defective, Scott defends them as necessary to the effort to rid the rolls of noncitizens. To do it, he points to people such as Ortega, who moved to Florida from Ecuador at age 10 and runs a small Tampa business providing technology services to businesses.

"Florida elections officials have an obligation to protect the right of eligible voters to cast a ballot," Scott says on a state website explaining his efforts. "And that includes preventing noncitizens from participating in an election."

But critics of the purge say the rarity of Ortega's situation proves that the risk of prison time is enough to discourage noncitizens from voting.

"It's a classic case of using a cannon when a flyswatter would suffice," said Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, a liberal advocacy group that has criticized Scott's "dragnet" approach to hunting for noncitizens on the rolls. "It puts the burden on eligible voters to prove they're U.S. citizens, and it's absolutely a way of suppressing the vote."

Ortega lives in West Tampa and manages L Ortega & Associates of Tampa Bay, a company that installs computers and provides IT support.

He registered to vote in Tampa in 2004 on a form published in Spanish. He listed no party affiliation and checked "" when asked if he were a "ciudadano," a citizen of the United States.

Elections clerks do not verify the citizenship status of voters. Rather, they rely on voters to tell the truth.

Ortega voted one time, in the statewide general election of Nov. 7, 2006. That was the day Democrat Bill Nelson won a second term in the U.S. Senate and then-Republican Charlie Crist was elected governor.

Ortega, who lives in a modest green stucco home in a working-class neighborhood, declined to comment other than to say he thought his situation was resolved.

"I didn't do it on purpose. It's something I wasn't aware of," Ortega said. "I realized I had made a mistake. I didn't intend to deceive the system."

Still, he could be in trouble.

Ortega's lone trip to the ballot box is in the hands of Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, whose office received a report from the county sheriff on June 1.

"It's just now coming into our shop. It's going to be reviewed, and we'll go from there," said Mark Cox, Ober's spokesman.

It's a third-degree felony in Florida to "willfully" vote "knowing he or she is not a qualified elector."

When the elections office asked Ortega to prove his citizenship in April, he signed a form accepting a finding that he is not a U.S. citizen. He checked a box marked "I agree with your information and do not require a hearing."

"He did acknowledge that he is not an American citizen," said Craig Latimer, chief of staff in the Hillsborough elections office.

Ortega is one of two people removed from the voter rolls in Tampa Bay who voted in an election, according to public records, and is one of 72 voters in Hillsborough listed on the state database of questionable citizenship based on 2011 driver's license data.

Six other Hillsborough voters produced passports, birth certificates or certificates of naturalization to confirm their citizenship before the agency stopped combing through the list more than a week ago, concluding that it was unreliable.

In Hillsborough as elsewhere, most people whose citizenship was questioned did not respond to certified letters, and most have never voted.

In Pinellas County, where the state list includes 37 names, only one voter was removed from the roll: Luis Fernandez, 54, of St. Petersburg's Snell Isle neighborhood. He registered in 2001 but never cast a ballot. He declined to comment.

Like Ortega, Fernandez agreed with the findings of the elections office that he should not have registered, and signed a statement to that effect April 20.

A more common occurrence, however, is what happened to U.S. citizen Joanna Buck, a native of West Palm Beach who has lived in St. Petersburg for the past 12 years. She got a letter questioning her citizenship only two months after renewing her Florida driver's license, calling the action "bogus."

"I own my house and pay my taxes," said Buck, 54, a private chauffeur and registered Democrat. "I'm a little bit irritated. This is the first time in my life I've had to produce a birth certificate. I'd like to know how my name got tossed into the ring."

The decision of whether to purge a voter from the voter roll is up to each county elections supervisor.

Buck, who jokingly referred to herself as "an illegal alien from Poland," was briefly removed from the Pinellas voter roll after she did not answer a certified letter from the elections office, as allowed by law.

Buck was soon "reinstated," in the words of Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who decided not to remove any other voters because she lost faith in the state's purge list.

"We will not use unreliable data," Clark said.

Of a list of 13 names provided by the state, Pasco County removed two voters from the rolls; both asked to be removed. One never voted; the other, Raquel Melara, 35, of Dade City, voted in the 2008 general election. Her citizenship status is unclear, Pasco elections supervisor Brian Corley said.

Collier County in Southwest Florida has sent two cases of noncitizen voters to law enforcement for further investigation. Orange County officials found a woman there who voted twice in 2008 even though she was not a citizen.

More than half of the 2,625 names on the state's list are from Miami-Dade County, where 14 noncitizens have been removed from the rolls from a universe of 1,637 people. But there, too, Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley lost faith in the list because of an error rate she said was as high as 33 percent.

The burden is on elections supervisors to ban noncitizens from the rolls, but many of them said they did not want to disenfranchise citizens, either.

"I find the state's noncitizens match list to be unreliable and insufficient, on its own, to meet the preponderance of the evidence standard required to find that a registered voter is not a United States citizen," Townsley told state elections officials.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde, Times researcher Natalie Watson and Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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