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Federal officials order halt to purge of voter rolls

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:15 PM
TAMPA -

County elections supervisors raised red flags, and then federal authorities weighed in Thursday to demand the state of Florida halt its ongoing push to remove thousands of voters from the rolls.

The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter contending Florida's efforts to identify people who are not U.S. citizens violates federal voting laws.

Among county supervisors concerned about Florida's effort is Hillsborough's Earl Lennard, who said he considers a purge list developed by the state to be unreliable and won't use it to reject voters unless there is corroborating evidence.

Lennard, like other supervisors, said he has found voters on the state's list who are citizens.

Under normal procedures, voters on such a list would be removed from the rolls unless they responded to individual letters from the supervisor or to a newspaper legal ad.

Lennard said supervisors are bound by law to act on "any good, credible, reliable information we get" concerning ineligible voters on the rolls. The state's list, Lennard said, doesn't appear reliable.

The state Division of Elections had sent out an initial list of about 2,600 suspect voters and is working on a list of about 180,000 more. The state complained it can't get access to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database of non-citizens that could make its list more reliable.

Despite that, Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday during a visit to Tampa that he remains committed to the process of checking the state voter rolls and acknowledged he initiated the process over the objection of former Secretary of State Kurt Browning.

"It's the right thing to do to check and make sure" voters are legally registered, Scott said, speaking before the release of the federal letter.

"We want to make sure that people register to vote, they have the right to vote … but we don't want people voting in elections that aren't entitled to vote."

Asked about proceeding with the purge against Browning's advice, Scott said, "I asked him, I said, 'Do we check to see if people have the right to vote in our state,' and that's how it started."

Browning has since resigned and is running for Pasco County school superintendent. He couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

Federal officials say purge procedures the state is using have not been reviewed. Florida must get approval for changes in voting procedures because five of its 67 counties are still covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Justice Department letter also says removing voters from the rolls less than 90 days before a federal election violates federal law. The letter gives Florida until Wednesday to tell federal authorities whether they plan to halt the purge.

Several elections supervisors contacted by The Tampa Tribune on Thursday said they did find people who weren't citizens on the list but have also found errors. They have decided not to purge any voters based on the list unless they have other evidence.

"I think that's what most of the counties are doing," said Martin County Supervisor Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

In a memo to the supervisors Thursday, Ron Labasky, counsel for the association, advised them "removal should only take place if you are absolutely certain the person is inappropriately on the rolls."

In an interview, Labasky said he thinks supervisors will look for an "affirmative indicator" that the voter isn't a citizen rather than relying solely on failure to respond to a letter or ad. He advised they use "extreme caution."

Democrats and voting rights groups have called on the state to halt the purge, saying it violates voting rights laws and appears to be aimed at knocking Democratic voters off the rolls in advance of the 2012 elections.

Several Democratic Congress members, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, have called on Scott to halt the purge.

In a speech to a Hispanic group Saturday, Nelson said purge along with new elections laws passed last year amount to a "voter suppression" effort targeting young people and minorities.

The issue has drawn news coverage nationwide, in part because of similarities to a faulty list of felon voters in the infamous 2000 Florida presidential election.

That list is reported to have resulted in disenfranchising hundreds of legitimate voters, mostly black and Hispanic.

This year's initial list of non-citizens is heavily Hispanic and may contain up to 20 percent erroneous listings, an aide to Deutch said Thursday.

But it also apparently contains a number of Canadians, including snowbirds, according to county elections supervisors.

In Tampa, University Village resident Archibald Bowyer, 91, a Navy corpsman in World War II, was tagged as a non-citizen. Bowyer said he has lived in the United States since age 2, been a citizen since his father was naturalized, lived in Tampa more than 30 years, and voted "every time there was a reason to."

Bowyer speculated about why he was on the list: "When I have to put down where I was born and I say Canada, people assume, he's a foreigner."

He could have been knocked off voter rolls because he didn't respond to a letter from Lennard's office telling him he had 30 days to prove his citizenship.

He said he got the letter around the time his wife died.

"I had a lot to do, and I just glanced at it," he said. "I didn't send it back to them."

Lennard's deputy, Craig Latimer, said his office staff found a phone number for Bowyer and eventually determined he was a legitimate voter.

Latimer said that so far, six of the 72 individuals on the list sent to Hillsborough County proved their citizenship, including five born in this country.

"It became obvious this list was not credible and reliable," he said. "We're now waiting for any information to come from the state before we act on it."

Among other findings from county elections supervisors:

"This has put us in a no-win situation," Corley said. "If we truly comply and remove those that don't respond, then folks say we're suppressing voter rights. If we don't, we have people saying we're allowing non-citizens to vote."

State Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate said Thursday that the division "knew there was a possibility some eligible voters would be on the list. But we're also confident that there are ineligible voters on the list and this is the only means we have to remove them."

"We're not aware of anybody being wrongly removed from the rolls" because of the list, Cate said. He acknowledged, however, it wouldn't be immediately apparent if that happened.

If a voter was wrongly purged, he said, that voter could still cast a provisional ballot on Election Day and would then have 48 hours to visit the local elections office to prove citizenship.

"A handful of people may be inconvenienced … but the majority of these are non-citizens and should be removed from the voter rolls," Cate said.

But Corley said the state initially told supervisors that those on the list were "the low-hanging fruit — there was rock-solid data that they were not citizens."

"Why is this happening a week before candidate qualifying and 11 weeks out before the primary?" Corley said.

The list was developed by matching state voter rolls with driver's license data, and Cate acknowledged errors could arise if a non-citizen applied a few years ago for a license and was later naturalized.

wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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