Florida Defends New Effort to Clean Up Voter Rolls

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LAUDERHILL, Fla. -- Paving the way for a new attempt to remove noncitizens from voter rolls, Florida's election chief tried to stoke confidence on Wednesday in the revamped plan before a largely skeptical crowd in immigrant-heavy South Florida.

For Ken Detzner -- Florida's secretary of state and the man in charge of elections -- the meeting's combative tone was the latest measure of the distrust engendered by the state's move last year to try to weed out noncitizens from registration lists months before the polls opened. The Republican-driven decision to review the rolls took on political overtones because Hispanics in Florida vote largely for Democrats.

Mr. Detzner, capping a five-city tour, defended his decision -- if not the breakdown in the process last year -- saying it is his obligation to ensure the integrity of the state's voter rolls. Only American citizens are permitted to vote in elections.

But the driver's license data that Florida used to compile the list of potential noncitizens last year proved so unreliable that decorated war veterans turned up on the rosters sent to election supervisors. The supervisors chose not to participate in the process.

Ultimately, Mr. Detzner called off the search, frustrated that the state was blocked from using a more expansive federal database to check immigration status. In the summer of 2012, the state was granted access to the Department of Homeland Security database after challenging the federal government in court.

Mr. Detzner acknowledged the flaws in last year's effort. "The credibility and integrity of the elections process is based, as I said, on the voter rolls," he told the crowd, which included advocates for voter and immigrant rights. "I am the person who is responsible. I accept responsibility for the issues and problems that occurred last year."

Designed to assure voters that the same mistakes will not be repeated, the new plan to review voter registration rolls for noncitizens will rely chiefly on the Homeland Security database. The database, which does not include the names of citizens, is used by the federal government and states to see if immigrants, depending on their status, are eligible for benefits.

"It's the federal government's database, and the only one we have that is reliable," Mr. Detzner said.

The new effort also will include a series of safeguards and checks by state election employees to try to ensure that people are not being erroneously labeled noncitizens.

But during the discussion here on Wednesday, the Palm Beach supervisor of elections, Susan Bucher, a critic of the effort, expressed concerns about the database's dependability.

While the data in the federal database comes from the states, Mr. Detzner did not know which Florida agencies collect and funnel the information to Homeland Security. He and his staff also did not know how often the state data is updated to reflect changes in immigration status.

In the 2012 agreement with Florida which allowed the state to use the information, the Department of Homeland Security said that the database was not a foolproof way of verifying citizenship.

Ms. Bucher said state data is sometimes flawed. She said she recently handled a case involving a felon who had regained his right to vote, a change that was not reflected in a state database.

She also called it onerous for the state's 67 election supervisors to double-check the federal database, which they can now do, and then make the final determination on a person's citizenship status. "My office doesn't know anything about documents for immigration," she said. "We don't have the staff. We are spending our money to run elections."

The exchange between the two grew so heated that at one point Mr. Detzner cut off Ms. Bucher's questions.

The audience proved no less combative. One person questioned the wisdom of pursuing the purge when so little fraud is evident. "There are more shark attacks each year in Florida than voter fraud cases," the person wrote in a question that was read aloud. "How much money is wasted on this?"

The question, which drew a few laughs, was not quite accurate. Last year, 26 people in Florida were bitten by sharks and 85 noncitizens were removed from the rolls, although Mr. Detzner said the number was incomplete because the scrub of the rolls was never finished.

He also said that he could not vouch for any one number.

"We did not really track that," he said. "And to be honest with you, the program last year was deficient in data collection because we never really initiated a whole program."

As for the new plan, Mr. Detzner said that he was still unsure when it would begin but that if inconsistencies were found, he would suspend the search until they could be addressed.

Nevertheless, he said, he is obligated to move forward in identifying noncitizens.

"We have a job to do; we are required to do it, we are sworn to do it," Mr. Detzner said. "This is not some type of mission. I will be the first to cheer, if I don't have anybody to remove, but I don't think that is realistic."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 9, 2013 9:06 PM


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