Local Election Officials Wary as DHS Grants Florida Voter-Roll Check

July 17, 2012
by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

Voters line up to vote in the presidential primary at Gayton Elementary School's gymnasium in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Florida officials will be allowed to check potential voters’ names against a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) citizenship database, in the latest development in Florida’s contested effort to purge its voter rolls ahead of the November election.

Local officials, however, said they’re still wary of the process.

“We’re in agreement that voter rolls need to be cleaned, yet we want a process that works for everyone” including state and local election officials, said Vicki Davis, the elected president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “Especially for the voters, that the voters’ rights are protected. We need to move slowly and cautiously in this.”

In May, Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, announced the purge, intended to remove non-citizens from voter rolls. A month later, the Justice Department sued to stop it, alleging the purge violated the Voting Rights Act because it began too close to the election and risked removing eligible voters.

Late last month, a judge ruled that Florida officials could check its rolls for non-citizens, paving the way for the Homeland Security Department to grant access to the citizenship database for verification. It was a victory for Florida, which had asked for access to the database several months earlier.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida’s secretary of state, said that officials could begin verifying names as early as next week, but added that there was no specific timeline. Florida officials must first sign a memorandum of understanding with Homeland Security that states what access DHS will provide. Florida officials must then be trained to use the system.

A DHS official said that the department would only assist in verifying citizenship of certain individuals and won’t weigh in on voters’ eligibility.

It’s also unclear how many names Florida wants to check. Cate wouldn’t offer a figure, except to say that the list of 180,000 names the department had originally compiled to purge from the voter rolls was “obsolete.”

In May, state officials sent local election workers a list of about 2,600 names off the original list, but that purge was was stalled by county election supervisors who found legal voters among the names. “We had been told this list was a really clean list with which to work,” Davis, the supervisors’ association president, told FRONTLINE at the time.

Local officials on Tuesday said they would proceed carefully this time, too.

Davis said that she didn’t expect the process to be complete before Florida’s primary election, which begins on Aug. 14. If the list contains names of citizens again, she said supervisors might again consider halting work on the lists. “That’s always a possibility,” she said. “Hopefully there will be backup documentation to support names that we receive, and we have more information moving forward.”

Ann McFall, the Republican election supervisor for Volusia County, was more direct: “If they give us a list that they haven’t checked thoroughly, they’re probably going to get embarrassed,” she said.

Florida’s voter purge has gained attention because of its history of election-related controversies. Before the 2000 presidential election, Florida officials removed an estimated 12,000 eligible voters from the rolls in an attempt to remove felons. In 2004, election officials had to abandon a purge of 48,000 purported felons after they admitted the list was flawed.

The Justice Department has two other cases pending against South Carolina and Texas for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discrimination against voters, and bars jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from making any alterations to voting law without approval from the attorney general or the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C.

A three-judge panel has heard arguments in the Texas case and is expected to rule by August.

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