TAMPA, Fla. – Florida's local election supervisors on Wednesday sounded skeptical, and even distrustful, of a push by the state to remove thousands of potential non-U.S. citizens from the voting rolls just months before the critical 2012 elections.
The supervisors, meeting at their annual summer conference, peppered state election officials with questions about the list of more than 2,600 people who have been identified as being in Florida legally but ineligible to vote. That list was sent to supervisors recently, but state officials have also said there may be as many as 182,000 registered voters who may not be citizens.
The questions about voter eligibility surface as the state continues its months-long efforts to scrub the rolls, including asking supervisors to remove more than 53,000 dead people discovered by comparing voter rolls to federal Social Security files. This was the first time the state checked the files. It was allowed under a controversial election law that passed the GOP-controlled Legislature last year.
State election officials want the state's 67 county election offices to reach out to those on the potentially ineligible list, determine their citizenship status and remove them from the rolls if they are not U.S. citizens.
But election supervisors - including Democrats and Republicans - asked a range of questions about the level of proof that state election officials had regarding the citizenship status of voters which was culled by comparing voter registration lists to a state driver's license database. They said they wanted more information before they purge someone from the voting rolls.
"I'm feeling really uncomfortable about this," Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told officials with the state's Division of Elections.
Brian Corley, the Pasco County elections supervisor, questioned the timing of the push, noting that election officials were first given a list of potential ineligible voters from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles roughly a year ago.
Corley pointed out how two voters on the department's list given to him wound up being born in Ohio and Massachusetts. One of the names wound up on the list of non-U.S. citizens because the driver's license number used to check citizenship had one number wrong on it.
"We want our voter rolls to be accurate, obviously no one wants someone to vote who isn't a citizen," Corley said. "But at the same time we are the ones fielding phone calls from voters saying `Why are you questioning my citizenship?"
Added Gertrude Walker, the St. Lucie County elections supervisor: "We don't have confidence in the validity of the information."
Gisela Salas, director of the state Division of Elections, said that the delay in giving supervisors the potential match list was because the state was trying to verify the information before it handed it over. 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.
There are currently more than 11 million active registered voters in the state, but a few thousand votes could make the difference in what is expected to be a tight race between President Barack Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in the Sunshine 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.
The state has been responsible for helping screen voters since 2006 when it launched a statewide voter registration database. 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.
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. An effort to remove felons back in 2004 was halted after it was discovered that the list drawn up by the state had errors.
Several supervisors pointed out they now get a packet of background information before they remove a convicted felon from the rolls. They wanted to know if the state would start providing the same level of detail with both deceased voters and those deemed not to be U.S. citizens.
Maria Matthews, the assistant general counsel for the Division of Elections, acknowledged that the state's list may not be "foolproof" but she said that in the end it is up to local supervisors to determine if a voter should be purged.
"We do not make the determination, that is what you get paid for," Matthews told supervisors.
Some supervisors such as Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho - recalling past attempts to remove voters - said he would move slowly before purging anyone.
"Caution is a good code to live by in the election world these days," Sancho said.