After First Flawed Attempt, Florida Tries Voter Roll Restrictions Again

When Florida Governor Rick Scott's administration began an effort to find and purge non-citizens from the voting rolls last year, life-long citizens and voters received letters asking them to prove their citizenship. That became a political embarrassment. But now, the Scott administration is ready to start the purge again, this time using a federal citizenship database. But county election officials remain wary.

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A year before the next big election, officials in Florida are beginning to look once again at removing non-citizens from the state's voter rolls. When Florida started the process last year, it quickly became a fiasco. U.S. citizens were mistakenly identified as ineligible to vote and county election supervisors refused to go forward with the purge. Well, now the state is trying again, saying it has improved the process. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Plantation, Florida, the controversy remains.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Among the biggest embarrassments last year came when a 91-year-old man - a life-long citizen and World War II vet - was told he had to show proof of citizenship or be removed from voter rolls.

MARIA MATTHEWS: Admittedly, we've gone on record, there were some missteps that were made with that.

ALLEN: The head of Florida's Division of Elections, Maria Matthews, was in Lauderhill, near Fort Lauderdale today to discuss with voters and county officials the new plan to identify and remove non-citizens from voter rolls. Governor Rick Scott's administration was forced to abandon last year's effort. But after a Supreme Court decision struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, the governor announced he would resume the voter purge, now renamed Project Integrity.

Florida's Secretary of State Ken Detzner explained that the new process would be much more reliable: indentifying non-citizens through a federal database operated by the Department of Homeland Security. And he said federal and state law is clear: State and county elections officials are charged with making sure only those who are eligible cast ballots.

KEN DETZNER: We can't pick and choose which laws that we want to enforce; we're required to.

ALLEN: Detzner and Matthews painstakingly went through a multi-colored flow chart with county elections supervisors, showing them the ways in which suspected non-citizens would be identified and cross-checked before being notified they were being purged from the voter rolls. Many county officials seem satisfied. But there are some, like Elections Supervisor of Palm Beach County Susan Bucher, who remain critical.

SUSAN BUCHER: If we don't know who's putting data into this database and how often they're updating and there's already a program to correct your records, what kind of assurance can you provide to us?

ALLEN: After the meeting, Bucher said she has lots of questions that will have to be answered before she signs on to Florida's new voter purge.

BUCHER: Well, we got pretty burned last year. You know, last year, all we got was a spreadsheet and they said trust us.

ALLEN: Last year, the secretary of state's office initially identified over 180,000 voters suspected of being non-citizens. It later reduced the list to 2,600. But because of questions about how they were identified, Bucher never sent letters to any of her voters in Palm Beach County. In Broward County, Elections Chief Brenda Snipes says some letters did go out.

BRENDA SNIPES: We had about seven people who came in on their own and removed themselves from the rolls because they admitted that they were not citizens. But we didn't go much beyond that because we stopped the process.

ALLEN: Snipes says she's seen no evidence in her county that non-citizens who were registered actually cast votes. Asked by audience members about how many non-citizens last year were removed from the voter rolls and how many were prosecuted, Secretary of State Detzner said he didn't have that information. Detzner denied that the renewed voter purge effort has anything to do with politics. And as for skeptical county officials, he said, they'll come around.

DETZNER: I'm optimistic that every one will have confidence in the process and that we will earn their respect and that they will follow the law.

ALLEN: That remains to be seen, as does the timing. Detzner says he has no timetable to begin the new purge of non-citizens from the rolls, just that he's certain it will be underway before the next election. Greg Allen, NPR News, Plantation, Florida.

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