Hispanics, Democrats biggest groups on Florida's list of potential noncitizen voters, analysis shows

Published May 13, 2012

MIAMI — Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted in a state hunt to remove thousands of noncitizens from Florida's voting rolls, a Miami Herald computer analysis of elections records has found.

Whites and Republicans are disproportionately the least-likely to face the threat of removal, the analysis of a list of more than 2,600 potential noncitizens shows. The list was first compiled by the state and furnished to county election supervisors and then the Herald.

The numbers change by the day. The state's Division of Elections says it initially identified roughly 180,000 potential noncitizens by performing a search of a computer database that doesn't have the most-updated information.

About 58 percent of those identified as potential noncitizens are Hispanics, Florida's largest ethnic immigrant population. They make up just 13 percent of the overall 11.3 million active registered voters.

Those who have been flagged as potential noncitizens by the state are being contacted by county election supervisors. Many legitimate voters aren't happy with what they see as a needless hassle from a government using bad data.

"I'm upset, because if someone is an American citizen, it is his right to vote. How can they be asking for this?" said Juan Artabe, a 41-year-old Democrat from Cuba who said he became a citizen in 2009.

"Very poor job by the elections department," Artabe said. He said he was contacted last week by the Miami-Dade elections office and sent in a copy of his citizenship papers so he wasn't struck from the voter rolls.

About two-thirds of the potential noncitizen matches so far have been in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county with the biggest immigrant population.

The election-year effort, led by a Republican-appointed secretary of state, has increasingly become a focus of concern among Democrats, liberals and civil liberties groups. They worry that the state could wind up removing lawful voters from the rolls.

But the state's elections officials say they're trying to make sure noncitizens — who aren't supposed to vote in Florida elections — aren't unlawfully casting ballots. Voter fraud is a third-degree felony.

"The Department of State has a duty under both state and federal laws to ensure that the voter registration rolls are current and accurate by conducting list maintenance," said Chris Cate, spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner's agency, which oversees the elections division.

"If we receive credible and reliable information, we must act on it," Cate said. "Race or party never factor into the process. Our focus is on identifying and removing ineligible voters from the rolls because that's our job."

In this case, Florida went looking for potential noncitizen voters, following the lead of Republican secretaries of state in Colorado and New Mexico — two other Hispanic-heavy swing states this election year.

Florida elections officials compared information from the state's mammoth voter rolls with a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database that began collecting citizenship information relatively recently.

Many people register to vote at driver's license offices under the so-called "motor-voter" law. There's a chance that some noncitizens who get a license mistakenly fill out a voter-registration card. Some may willingly ignore the law that restricts Florida voting to U.S. citizens who are state residents.

Other noncitizens don't register to vote when they get their license. However, when those people become citizens, no one notifies the state.

So when the elections department compares the voter rolls with the highway safety database, there's a good chance that the citizenship information is out of date for some.

In Artabe's case, for instance, state data showed he last had a "transaction" with DHSMV in 2006 — three years before he says he became a citizen.

Enrique Barreto, a 54-year-old Republican, said he became a citizen in 2008 — about the time the state database records an interaction with DHSMV. He said he had received his letter from Miami-Dade County. But he hadn't read it yet.

"I thought it was proof required because it is an election year," said Barreto, of Miami, who was born in Cuba. He said he became a citizen in 2008, when he voted in the presidential election.

The state has requested access to federal citizenship databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, which has stonewalled the request of Florida and Colorado as they've hunted for noncitizen voters.

Not all have voted.

Of the roughly 1,600 potential noncitizens in Miami-Dade furnished to the Miami Herald, about 65 percent have cast ballots. About 72 percent have cast ballots of the 262 identified in Broward County. And roughly 30 percent of the 115 identified in Palm Beach County have voted in the past.

Hispanics dominate the numbers because they're Florida's biggest immigrant group and the state's fastest-growing electoral demographic.

When they register to vote, Hispanics are flocking to the Democratic Party or to the no-party-affiliation label — nicknamed "NPA" — a sign the Republican Party's hard-line immigration stances are turning off Latinos.

Those potential noncitizens who register as NPAs have been disproportionately flagged in the state's computer sweep. About 38 percent of all potential noncitizens are NPAs, who make up just 20 percent of the overall electorate.

Democrats are the most-likely to be flagged, in large part because their party has the biggest ranks in Florida. They make up 40 percent of the voter rolls and 40 percent of the potential noncitizens.

Republicans account for 36 percent of the overall voter rolls but only 21 percent of the potential noncitizens on the state's list. The Republican Party is disproportionately white non-Hispanic as well. Only 13 percent of the potential-noncitizen list is white, though whites account for more than 68 percent of the overall Florida active voter rolls.

Blacks account for about 13 percent of the overall voter rolls and roughly 14 percent of the potential noncitizen voter list.

The state's periodic efforts to clean the voter rolls are met with periodic resistance and questions about race-based purging from liberal-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. It fought the state's last effort, in 2008, to remove new voters from the rolls if their voting information didn't match their government-issued identification cards.

In 2000, the elections division's move to strip felons from the rolls may have wrongly removed hundreds, if not thousands, of potential voters before the presidential election that Florida voters decided by just 537 votes.

"Based on Florida's regrettable experience with voter purges," said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida's executive director, "it would be a mistake to rely on the accuracy of the state's data — especially data from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that is acknowledged by the DHSMV to be out of date."

Databases are seldom 100 percent accurate. And that makes finding exact matches difficult.

As a result, after receiving the names from the state, county elections officials are now personally contacting potential noncitizens to sort out their voting status. They'll have about 60 days to prove that they're citizens.

"To say to already registered voters 'come down and prove who you are,' I'm not sure there's anything in the law that says that," said Mark Herron, an elections lawyer and expert who primarily represents Democrats. "But I don't think there's anything in the law that prohibits this, either."

In Miami, 63-year-old Jose Arguelles, a Republican who emigrated from Cuba in the late 1990s, had mixed emotions about the state's efforts. He said he became a citizen "four or five years ago." About the same time, he came into contact with the DHSMV.

Arguelles said he is not concerned about having his name appear on the list.

"I don't have any worry about it," he said. "If they tried to contact me, nothing is going to happen, because I am already a citizen."

But Arguelles also said he would be wary of sending sensitive documents such as a copy of his passport or naturalization certificate to the elections department by mail.

"I'm not going to release private information just because they're asking," he said.