Thursday, October 25, 2012

With new list, counties again prepare to check voter eligibility

With new list, counties again prepare to check voter eligibility

by Matt Dixo,
September 27th 2012 5:24 PM

News Service of Florida:

Local elections supervisors will again begin checking names of some registered voters to see if they're eligible to cast ballots, using a new list from the state aimed at culling non-citizens from the rolls.

The Florida Division of Elections this week sent the names of 198 registered voters to the supervisors of elections in the counties where those voters live, after using a federal homeland security database to pinpoint those who might not be citizens.

Local elections supervisors contacted Thursday said they would wait for further documentation from the state as to why the names were included in the list for possible removal.

Once they receive that, if local officials agree that there may be an ineligible voter, they will begin the process of locating the person. They'll send a certified letter asking the person to prove citizenship and give 30 days for a response.

In most cases, the counties have already checked the eligibility of at least some of the people identified. The state earlier this year sent a bigger list of suspected ineligible voters, and some counties tried to verify their eligibility until a lawsuit was filed and the effort was suspended. At the time, the state dropped its push for the checks, waiting for access to the homeland security data to try to refine the list.

For example, Orange County elections officials were sent 12 names this week, all of which had been sent to the county in a list of more than 80 names earlier this year. Back then, the county was able to determine that five of those 80-some-odd voters were ineligible and those five people have been removed from the voter rolls. Those five names were among the 12 sent to Orange County this week, said a county deputy supervisor of elections, Linda Tanko. Of the other seven, the county had likely tried to find them before, but had stopped trying when the effort was suspended, and now will begin the effort again.

Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards said it appears the names sent to her were all part of the earlier list that her office had already checked. In the earlier effort, the southwest Florida county removed 26 people from the rolls.

"It's the same names we've already taken action on," Edwards said. But if any of the 15 names on the new list weren't removed already or haven't proved their citizenship, the county would again start the process of trying to determine their eligibility, once it receives the supporting documentation, she said.

Julie Marcus, deputy elections supervisor in Pinellas County, also said the new list includes the names of people the county had already checked, including two that it removed from the rolls before the first phase of the purge effort was suspended.

Marcus said the mere existence of a name, voter registration number and birth date is not enough for local officials to remove a voter without getting more information and going through the process of determining eligibility.

"The bottom line is that the integrity of the process is critical, but you just can't start pulling people's names off the voter rolls," Marcus said.

The list sent to local officials this week is an abbreviated version of an original list of 2,600 names that the state sent earlier this year. Local supervisors had said that list contained a number of errors, and several voters turned out to be able to prove their citizenship.

The new, smaller list was produced once the state got access to the Department of Homeland Security database, which tracks residency status and is thought to be more reliable than the earlier target list.

State officials have repeatedly said that the effort even if it only turns up only a relatively small number of ineligible voters is important.

"We have a responsibility to ensure Floridas voter rolls are current and accurate," Chris Cate, a spokesman for the state Division of Elections, said Thursday. "The process to identify potential non-citizens has been a careful, thorough and legally-sound process to uphold the integrity of Florida elections by making sure ineligible voters cant cast a ballot."

But the exercise has drawn criticism from voting rights groups, which have said the effort to trim the rolls unfairly targets minority voters and newly naturalized citizens.

Advocacy groups have charged the push is an attempt to disqualify and intimidate Hispanic and other recent immigrants who may be more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Florida, a critical swing state in the upcoming presidential election, is among a handful of Republican-led states that have passed laws in recent years to tighten voter requirements.

"Many of these people are citizens," said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection for the Washington D.C.-based Advancement Project. "They came to the United States in search of the American dream and are now being targeted."

The controversial endeavor has been challenged in court. On Monday, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit by voting-rights groups to block removal of possibly ineligible voters from registration rolls before the November elections.

Five groups and two individual plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the effort, contending that federal law bars the state from taking voters off the rolls within 90 days before an election.

Many likely won't be able to be removed before voting begins anyway. Once counties decide to pursue possible removal of a voter, they still will send that person a certified letter starting a 30-day clock for response. Even if they don't get a response or the letter is returned, in many cases the counties will continue to try to locate the person anyway, several supervisors said.

Most of the names on the new list, by far, are from one county. Of the 198 names, 82 of them are from Miami-Dade. Another 23 are from Broward County and 21 are from Bay County, which includes Panama City. Fifteen names are from Collier County, which includes Naples, 14 from Palm Beach County, 12 from Orange County, which includes Orlando, and fewer than 10 each from a handful of other counties.

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