The mea culpa state tour by Secretary of State Ken Detzner is a hopeful sign that this time the Scott administration's effort to remove noncitizens from Florida's voter rolls will be more responsible. Last year's disastrous attempt at removing noncitizens from the rolls produced a flawed list that included a disproportionate share of minorities and residents who were legal voters. Now Detzner promises an improved approach will ensure that no voter will come under suspicion without solid evidence. That's good, but Florida's local supervisors of election should remain on their guard to protect the rights of every voter.
The change in tone as Detzner travels the state to accept responsibility for last year's debacle could win converts to "Project Integrity," his improved system for identifying noncitizen voters. He says this time the process will be "credible and reliable" because the state can determine citizenship status by culling data from SAVE, which stands for Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements and is a federal database of immigration records commonly used to help determine eligibility for public benefits. It isn't clear how quickly the system is updated to reflect newly naturalized citizens, so Detnzer's office will cross-check information using secondary sources possibly including lists of new citizens issued after naturalization ceremonies.
Last year, Florida's Department of State identified 182,000 suspected noncitizens on the voter rolls and more than half were minorities. Targets were found by comparing state driver's license data, which includes some citizenship data, to voter rolls. Eventually the list was whittled down to 198, but the state's 67 election supervisors shut down the effort when legitimate voters, many with Hispanic-sounding names, were caught in the purge.
Florida is rightly gun-shy over voter purges. There was too much similarity between the effort in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and the felons' list mess during Gov. Jeb Bush's administration. Before the 2000 election, the state relied on a highly flawed list of excluded felons that ended up dropping at least 1,100 eligible voters from the rolls. Florida has still not recovered from that black eye.
The state has an interest in ensuring only American citizens vote, but that can't be an excuse to harass voters with ethnic surnames. Detzner promises that before any names of suspected noncitizens are sent to elections supervisors they will be vetted by a state employee. Elections supervisors will also receive backup documentation to show the basis for the suspicion.
While this is a significant improvement, there still will be issues. Detzner should have a designated expert available to answer any naturalization and citizenship questions from elections supervisors. Considering the mess that was made during the attempt last year, elections supervisors should tread carefully until the new system is proven to be as accurate as promised.