Florida Democrats say Gov. Rick Scott leading 'misguided' effort to purge voters from state rolls

Published May 29, 2012

Bill Internicola was born in Brooklyn 91 years ago and received a Bronze Star for fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, but, according to the state of Florida, he may not be a U.S. citizen.

Internicola received a letter in May from the Broward supervisor of elections stating that it received "information from the State of Florida that you are not a United States citizen; however you are registered to vote." The letter was part of a controversial state-led effort to rid the voter rolls of noncitizens. Similar letters were sent to 259 Broward voters.

Internicola said he was "flabbergasted" by the suggestion that he wasn't a citizen. He called the county's election office and said: "Are you crazy?"

Internicola shared his story at a press conference Tuesday in Davie, where he was joined by two members of Congress: Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. The Democratic lawmakers say Internicola is an example of Gov. Rick Scott's "misguided" effort to purge legal voters from the rolls before this year's presidential elections.

Internicola said he sent Broward a copy of his Army discharge papers. He is one of six voters on the list who have provided paperwork to prove they are citizens, said Mary Cooney, a spokeswoman for the supervisor.

Broward was following the direction of the state Division of Elections, which initially identified roughly 180,000 potential noncitizens by searching a computer database from the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. But the drivers' license list doesn't automatically update when someone becomes a citizen.

The state whittled that list to more than 2,600 voters and forwarded those names to counties. A Times/Herald analysis of the list found it was dominated by Democrats, independents and Hispanics. The largest number were from Miami-Dade, home to the state's highest foreign-born population.

In Miami-Dade, 359 voters have provided proof that they are citizens. The county determined on its own that an additional 26 were citizens, while 10 others either admitted they were ineligible or requested to be removed.

Voters have 30 days from the receipt of the letter to provide documentation of citizenship or they will be removed from the rolls.

Any effort to remove names from Broward's voting rolls draws particular scrutiny because it is the most Democratic county in the state. It has more than 500,000 registered Democrats and could play a pivotal role in the outcome of a close presidential or U.S. Senate contest in November.

Deutch called Internicola an "American hero" and described him as "the face of Gov. Scott's request to purge our voter rolls."

Internicola said he was born in Brooklyn to an American-born mother and Italian-immigrant father. He traveled to several countries in Europe during World War II working as a medic where his nickname was "Pepsi" — since his last name ends with "cola." He got married, worked as a vice president of a restaurant chain in New York, had a son and daughter, and said he moved to Florida in the 1980s.

Broward voting records show that Internicola registered in 1991 and has been a frequent voter — including the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections — and in at least a couple of municipal elections. He's a lifelong Democrat.

Internicola admitted to one discrepancy in records. He says he was born in 1921, though he said his drivers' license indicates 1919. The reason: In his youth he wanted to start driving early so "I bent the truth a little bit."

Hastings said the state was engaging in "voter suppression" and using a "back-door poll tax" by not sending a prestamped envelope to voters to mail back their proof of citizenship.

Deutch and Hastings wrote a letter to Scott Tuesday questioning the timing of the voter roll drive just three months before the primary.

"Providing a list of names of questionable validity — created with absolutely no oversight — to county supervisors and asking that they purge their rolls will create chaotic results and further undermine Floridians' confidence in the integrity of our elections," stated the letter also signed by Florida Democratic Rep.'s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Corrine Brown and Kathy Castor. They asked Scott to "immediately suspend the purge of voter registration lists" in order to "ensure not one Floridian finds his or her legitimate voting rights callously stripped away."

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the state Division of Elections, defended the state's actions. "It's very important we make sure ineligible voters can't cast a ballot," he said in an email to the Herald on Tuesday.

He said the state continues to identify ineligible voters, saying the state Division of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has agreed to update information using a federal database that the elections division couldn't access directly.

"We won't be sending any new names to supervisors until the information we have is updated, because we always want to make sure we are using the best information available," Cate wrote. "I don't have a timetable on when the next list of names will be sent to supervisors, but there will be more names."

Also complaining to Scott was Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson. "Attempts to purge the voter roll so soon after signing one of the nation's most controversial voting laws raises concern, especially among young and minority voters," Nelson wrote in a letter to Scott.

Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry slammed Nelson for practicing the "worst kind of politics."

"Sen. Nelson not only asks our public servants to ignore the threat to electoral integrity, but he implies those who meet their legal obligation to ensure honest elections are being discriminatory," he said in a statement. "Nelson's distortions and willingness to pit people against each other based on race demonstrates the worst kind of politics."

In an interview, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes said she is complying with the state's orders, but does not believe the bulk of the voters who have yet to respond are noncitizens. She called for the state to stop the process and vet the list more carefully using more sources of records beyond the drivers' license data.

"List maintenance is ongoing," Snipes said. "We would have gotten folks off the rolls if they are not supposed to be there anyway."

Broward Party's Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar said the number on the county's list — 259 among more than 1 million registered voters in Broward — "is very, very microscopic." But he questioned the action led by Scott's administration.

"It's not by accident that Florida is doing this and all these other states that have Republican governors are doing it," Ceasar said. "The odds are too high that they had the same independent thought of each other."

Colorado and New Mexico have also launched similar efforts to check voter databases for noncitizens.

Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.