TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida has identified more than 2,600 people on the voter rolls who are legal residents but may not be eligible to vote because they are not U.S. citizens, state officials announced Wednesday .
The announcement comes at the same time the state, the U.S. Department of Justice and others are locked in a legal dispute over a voting law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature. GOP legislators said they pushed some of the changes in order to crack down on potential voter fraud.
"Florida voters need to know only eligible citizens can cast a ballot and we're doing everything in our power to ensure that is the case," said Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
The move comes just months before Florida is expected to play a critical role in deciding the 2012 presidential election. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in the Sunshine State.
A spokesman for the Department of State said the list is drawn from people who have driver's licenses but do not appear to be citizens. In the last few weeks, county election officials were given the list and asked to verify if the information is correct or not. Election supervisors are contacting voters and if someone is not a citizen, their name will be dropped from the voter rolls.
A Miami-Dade elections official said that the list sent to that county had roughly 1,700 names. Some people on the list have already given documentation that they are citizens, said Christina White, deputy supervisor of elections. She did not know if any of the people had been removed yet.
There are currently more than 11 million registered voters in the state.
Florida law requires voters to be a U.S. citizen residing in the state. Florida also does not allow someone to vote if they are a convicted felon and have not had their civil rights restored.
State officials said they did not know yet if any of the people on the list had voted illegally in past elections.
But the initial list given out by the state to supervisors shows the names of people who registered all the way from the late '50s to as recently as 2011. One Hillsborough County man on the list registered to vote in 1959.
The state has been responsible for helping screen voters since 2006 when it launched a statewide voter registration database.
Prior to the launch of the database, Florida had come under fire for previous efforts to remove felons from the voting rolls, including a purge that happened right before the 2000 presidential election that was decided by 537 votes. An effort to remove felons back in 2004 was halted after it was discovered that the list drawn up by the state was flawed.
The state database is supposed to check the names of registered voters against other databases, including ones that contain the names of people who have died and people who have been sent to prison.
But a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokeswoman acknowledged that until last year, no one was looking to see if someone who registered to vote and had a driver's license was a citizen. Driver's license numbers are routinely used to verify the identity of someone who registers to vote. The state does not give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, but it does grant them to legal visitors.
The state began to check the citizenship status as Florida began enforcing a law that requires anyone wanting to get a new driver's license or renew an existing license to produce proof of birth and citizenship.
Chris Cate with the Department of State said Wednesday that there could likely be additional names as the state continues to work with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. He said Florida has asked for access to a federal database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security but so far the U.S. government has turned the state down.
But some were skeptical of the state's push to remove voters from the rolls. It comes while Florida is still in court over a 2011 law that curtailed early voting hours and tightened rules for groups registering voters.
Legislators said the law was needed to protect the integrity of the state's elections, but the U.S. Department of Justice has questioned some of the changes.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the state should not allow non-citizens to vote but he maintained that the push was a "public relations offensive" and an "effort to rehabilitate the state's image that's what been done was to address fraud."
Ion Sancho, the supervisor of elections in Leon County who has joined the legal challenge to the new voting law, was also critical of the latest push by state officials since it is coming just months before the 2012 elections.
"We are seeing a national partisan effort by Republicans across the country in power to call out voting fraud as if it's a massive problem," Sancho said. "Even if the numbers are correct and if 2,000 individuals have been on rolls as voters that indicates our database is 99 percent accurate. That's pretty damn good."
This report is based on The Associated Press.