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Renewed 'scrub' of Florida voter list has elections officials on edge

Voters wait in long lines on Election Day 2012 in Miami. The new hunt for noncitizens will fall heavily on counties like Miami-Dade, where the elections chief wants reliable, shared data.
Voters wait in long lines on Election Day 2012 in Miami. The new hunt for noncitizens will fall heavily on counties like Miami-Dade, where the elections chief wants reliable, shared data.
Published Aug. 4, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott will soon launch a new hunt for noncitizens on Florida's voter roll, a move that's sure to provoke new cries of a voter "purge" as Scott ramps up his own re-election effort.

Similar searches a year ago were rife with errors, found few ineligible voters and led to lawsuits by advocacy groups who said it disproportionately targeted Hispanics, Haitians and other minority groups. Those searches were handled clumsily and angered county election supervisors, who lost confidence in the state's list of names.

"It was sloppy, it was slapdash and it was inaccurate," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards. "They were sending us names of people to remove because they were born in Puerto Rico. It was disgusting."

Over time, the state's initial list of suspected non-U.S. citizens shrank from 182,000 to 2,600 to 198 before election supervisors suspended their searches as the presidential election drew near.

"That was embarrassing," said elections chief Jerry Holland in Jacksonville's Duval County. "It has to be a better scrub of names than we had before."

Election supervisors remain wary of a new removal effort, which the U.S. Supreme Court effectively authorized in June when it struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. That ruling nullified a federal lawsuit in Tampa that sought to stop new searches for noncitizen voters, and Scott quickly renewed his call for action.

"If there's anybody that we think isn't voting properly, from the standpoint that they didn't have a right to vote, I think we need to do an investigation," Scott said the day of the high court decision. Last fall, Scott joined the Republican Party in a fundraising appeal that accused Democrats of defending the right of noncitizens to vote.

Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, is now creating a new list of suspected noncitizen voters by cross-checking state voter data with a federal database managed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Detzner's director of elections, Maria Matthews, sent a letter to election supervisors Friday, promising "responsible measures that ensure due process and the integrity of Florida's voter rolls" and vowing to include them "in the planning and decision-making."

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus, said Detzner told him that the state would resume its purge of potential noncitizens within 60 days.

"I've been told that they will go slow," Garcia said. "I'm completely confident that the process will work."

Hillsborough County halted its purge last year after several voters on a list of 72 flagged by the state proved their citizenship.

A voter whose citizenship is questioned has the right to provide proof of citizenship in a due process system that includes certified letters and legal notices.

If the next list is anything like the last one, its burden will fall most heavily on urban counties with large Hispanic populations, notably Miami-Dade.

"Ineligible voters will be removed when their ineligibility is substantiated by credible and reliable data," said Miami-Dade Election Supervisor Penelope Townsley.

Townsley and a half-dozen county election supervisors interviewed across the state were emphatic that anyone who's not a U.S. citizen should not be able to cast a ballot. But they also say the state must meticulously document any case of a suspected ineligible voter and share all data with the counties — including access to the federal database known as SAVE.

Some supervisors remain irked that Detzner's office still has not granted them access to the database after promising to do so last fall.

Okaloosa County Election Supervisor Paul Lux said the state's questionable data damaged relations between the state and counties last year.

"We said then, 'If you can't give us good data, why should we kill ourselves vetting it?' " Lux said.

Relations have improved, but Lux said he's not hopeful that the SAVE database will be much better.

"If the federal government is as good at collecting data as they are with doing other things, then I've got to wonder about the quality of this data," Lux said. "If we get the information sooner, we can get started and have plenty of time to do our own due diligence."

Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which opposed previous removal efforts, said the state's motive is to remove poor and minority voters who are less likely to vote Republican.

"For every voter they purge, we will nationalize and register many, many more," she said.

Voter purges aren't necessarily a bad thing, said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school.

She said many states require voter list maintenance efforts to prune the rolls of voters who are no longer eligible or who have died, but purges close to an election should be avoided.

"They offer lots of opportunities for eligible voters to get improperly removed because they frequently happen in a rushed, haphazard manner behind closed doors," Pérez said. "And the data is usually flawed."

On Twitter, Pasco County's Election Supervisor Brian Corley said: "Info from FL SOS (Secretary of State) must be credible & reliable! Integrity of voter rolls is paramount!"

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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