1. Opinion

Homeland Security owes Florida better explanation

Published Jun. 13, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott continues to defend his discredited attempt to remove noncitizens from the voter rolls, and the national media again ridicules Florida's efforts to make it harder to vote. But the governor is right in one respect. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been stonewalling in responding to a request by state elections officials to use a federal computer program, and it owes the state and its residents a clearer answer.

The fate of the botched purge of the voter rolls is now in the hands of the courts. The Scott administration has filed a federal lawsuit contending Homeland Security improperly denied the state access to the computer program that could help weed out noncitizens. The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state, persuasively arguing that the Scott administration is violating federal voting laws. A new Justice Department memo defends Homeland Security's actions regarding the computer program, but Homeland Security has not been prompt or open in dealing with questions from the state or the public.

Emails attached to the state's lawsuit indicate state elections officials have been seeking approval from Homeland Security to use the federal computer program known as SAVE since at least September. Weeks would go by with little or no substantive response. More than nine months later, there still is no clear, definitive answer to elections officials or to the public from the department. The Obama administration should be held to the same standard of openness and responsiveness as state government, and it has fallen short here.

The SAVE system would not be the panacea that Scott suggests. It is used by hundreds of federal and state agencies, including Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, to help determine an immigrant's eligibility for benefits such as a driver's license. But it does not include U.S. citizens born in this country, who have popped up on the state's flawed list of noncitizens. And to produce accurate results, an agency must have access to a noncitizen's specific immigration documents. Florida elections officials do not have those identifying documents, which are necessary to properly use the SAVE system.

Homeland Security raised that issue in October, and a state elections lawyer acknowledged in a return email that was an obstacle. But the exchanges curiously continued for months, and Washington was stringing Tallahassee along. So the Scott administration foolishly moved forward anyway, releasing a list of potential noncitizens to county elections supervisors that contains the names of hundreds of citizens whose voting rights were jeopardized. It is instructive that former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who left in February and earlier served more than 25 years as Pasco County's supervisor of elections, says he would not have sent out that flawed list.

Scott should be held accountable for plunging ahead with a flawed process that suppresses the vote. But Homeland Security should have been more open and responsive from the beginning, and it still has some explaining to do to Floridians.