Fla. Gov. Rick Scott's voter purge efforts start anew

Published Sept. 27, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's noncitizen voter purge efforts surged back to life Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott's elections office produced a new list of 198 potentially ineligible voters, including 39 who voted in past elections.

The list was compiled from data maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the state calls highly reliable, and is headed to county election supervisors, who must give anyone listed 30 days to respond. Any noncitizen who registered illegally could face criminal charges.

The decision to revive the controversial program 41 days before Election Day in the nation's biggest battleground state is stirring new controversy, even though some names on the new list were on a previous — and flawed — list of nearly 2,700 suspected noncitizens released in May.

"We are doing absolutely the right thing," Scott said recently in defending the state's efforts to remove noncitizens from the rolls. "We believe in honest, fair elections."

The new purge list, like the old one, is dominated by people from South Florida with Hispanic surnames. A total of 119 are listed as living in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The new list includes 11 people from Tampa Bay: five from Pinellas, four from Pasco and two from Hillsborough.

Paul Hogg, 53, of Tampa appeared to have voted in the 2004 presidential election in Broward County, records show.

"I was advised not to have any conversations about this," Hogg said Wednesday. "It is being handled legally."

A Miami man claimed he has being wrongly targeted as a noncitizen for a second time.

Yeral Arroliga, 25, who immigrated from Nicaragua in 1995 and has been a Florida voter since 2007, said he already sent proof of citizenship over the summer when he made the first purge list. He says he's ready to do it again, after making the new list, but he's not happy about it.

"It sounds like you have Big Brother watching over you," he said. "I don't know what's going on."

Florida's purge effort is already the subject of three federal lawsuits by a coalition of liberal-leaning groups and President Barack Obama's Justice Department.

Of this list of 198 potential noncitizens, about 58 percent are minority — 41 percent Hispanic and 17 percent black.

Democrats account for 44 percent of the potential noncitizens on this list and 41 percent of the overall active voter rolls, a Herald analysis found. More than a third of the list is made up of no-party-affiliation voters, who account for about a fifth of the rolls. Republicans make up 16 percent of the purge list and 36 percent of the overall voter rolls.

"Geography was not a consideration. No demographic was a factor in this process," said Chris Cate, spokesman for the state Division of Elections.

The state notified all 67 county election supervisors of the new list late Wednesday, and added an explanation.

"Each of the persons on the attached list has either personally attested to his or her status as a noncitizen or has been identified as a potential noncitizen using the most accurate information available to the Florida Department of State, including data contained in multiple state and federal databases," said the email from Maria Matthews, chief of the state voter registration bureau. "At all times, the Department's highest priority will be to ensure that Florida's voter rolls are accurate and that all citizens' right to vote is protected."

One who made the list, Anita Caragan of Panama City Beach, is a noncitizen who said she has voted "for a long, long time." Records show the unaffiliated voter has cast ballots 10 times in Florida since 2000.

Caragan, 72, who moved to the U.S. in 1970 from the Philippines, said when she was living in Norfolk, Va., more than 35 years ago, she renewed her driver's license and registered to vote at the same time, not realizing it was illegal.

Her husband, Emiliano, who also immigrated from the Philippines and served 21 years in the Navy, is a citizen. He said he wasn't aware his wife could not vote with only a green card.

Both plan to vote in November.

"Of course we're going to vote," he said. "We both have voter registration cards."

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's office said the new list was produced by comparing Florida's 11 million voter registration database with a federal immigration database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE.

The state filed a lawsuit to gain access to the SAVE data.

"The state is not telling county elections supervisors, 'Remove these people.' We are providing information for the counties to examine," Cate said. "The supervisors have the discretion to keep anyone who is on this list on the voter rolls."

Still, Diana Kasdan, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, questioned the timing of the removal program and said it could disenfranchise legitimate voters.

"These last-minute purges of the kind he has instituted create serious questions about the motives for these purges," Kasdan said.

The five people on the new list from Pinellas County include two people who admitted they were not citizens and were removed last spring, and two others who remain on the rolls because their citizenship status is unclear.

The fifth person on the list, Frank Chorley, 66, of Tarpon Springs, is the only one that actually voted, records show. Chorley voted once, in 2002. He could not be reached for comment.

A second Hillsborough County man on the new list, Luis Ortega, 30, also voted once before. He was removed from the voter rolls after acknowledging to the county elections office that he was not a U.S. citizen.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and his Pinellas counterpart, Deborah Clark, say the state has made improvement by providing backup documentation for each case in which a voter's citizenship is being questioned.

"We will proceed with caution," Clark said. "We will do it in full compliance with the law."

Under state law, county elections supervisors must send a certified letter to anyone flagged as a potential noncitizen. The person has 30 days to show proof of citizenship to remain a voter.

Those who fail to provide proof within 30 days can be purged from the rolls. If a letter is returned as undeliverable, the county elections office must place a notice in the newspaper giving the person 30 days to respond.

Florida's initial purge program was mired in controversy because a disproportionately high number of citizens were flagged as potential noncitizens. Under that program, the state assembled a list of nearly 2,700 names by comparing the voter rolls with a database of licensed drivers that contained outdated citizenship information.

The state says the new list is far better thanks to the SAVE database, which assigns a unique identifying number to citizens and noncitizens. But critics remain skeptical.

"Homeland Security recognizes the database is not perfect," said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project. "Our position is that it's not appropriate to remove anyone from the rolls like this 90 days before an election. Mistakes can be made and we are urging caution."

Last week, the Advancement Project and other groups settled part of a federal lawsuit with the state against the first purge program. The advocates and the U.S. Justice Department argue that under federal law, the state can't purge voters 90 days before a federal election.

The state says supervisors can push ahead with the purge because noncitizens aren't entitled to protections afforded to legal voters.

With the relaunching of the program, a judge will likely have to rule soon on whether the state can proceed.

The program became a flashpoint last spring in the battle over voting rights. Conservatives argue the program is needed to help stop fraud. Liberals say it's tantamount to "voter suppression" that targets minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.

For North Miami resident Luckner Bastien, the list was an eye-opener. A native of Haiti and former U.S. Marine, he said he's not a citizen and has no idea how he wound up listed as a registered voter.

The state's voter rolls indicate he cast his first and only ballot in the disputed 2000 presidential election, a month after he turned 18.

"That's news to me," he said. "I never voted."

Times/Herald staff writers Anna Edgerton, Daniel Chang, Sergio R. Bustos and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.