By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
After almost two rocky years, state officials have decided to suspend its non-citizen voter purge—for now.
The decision to stop a statewide effort to remove non-citizens from the state’s voter rolls follows news that the federal government is redesigning its immigration database, SAVE. State officials were using the SAVE database to generate a list of suspected non-citizens.
The about-face on Thursday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner resolves a standoff with county elections supervisors, who resisted the purge and were suspicious of its timing. It also had given rise to Democratic charges of voter suppression aimed at minorities, including Hispanics crucial to Scott’s reelection hopes.
Detzner told supervisors in a memo that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is redesigning its SAVE database, and it won’t be finished until 2015, so purging efforts, known as Project Integrity, should not proceed.
“I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the federal SAVE program Phase Two is completed,” Detzner wrote.
Detzner sent his memo after three rounds of conference calls with supervisors, who endorsed his decision.
“It is a good idea to postpone the project until we’re sure we have it right,” said Citrus County Supervisor Susan Gill. “The closer it gets to the election, which I know you’re well aware of, the more likely it is that we’ll get a lot of criticism.”
The voter purge was heavily criticized from its start in 2012—just a couple months before that year’s presidential election.
The first list of suspected non-citizens, which was handed down to local election officials, was rife with errors. Many people who were actually citizens were included in the list, which prompted a lot of scrutiny into the state’s program. Eventually, news circulated that the lists also disproportionately targeted minorities, which made things worse. On top of criticism from Democrats, voting rights groups and minority rights groups were up in arms.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida even sought legal action to stop the purge.
The purge was eventually stopped by the local officials tasked with removing people from the voter rolls. County election supervisors told the state that the list was simply full of too many errors. So, weeks shy of a national election, the purge was temporarily stopped.
However, months after the 2012 election, officials decided to take another stab at the voter purge.
This time, officials promised to generate a more accurate list. A major component of getting better lists was to convince federal officials to let the state use the SAVE database. After a contentious fight with federal officials, the state was granted access to the immigration information.
But now, close to a gubernatorial election, the database is unusable. Democrats and civil rights groups, who had long been attacking the program, are now breathing a sigh of relief.
And according to The Palm Beach Post, the announcement has also “revived attacks from Democrats.”
“This was a mistake from the beginning, and part of a pattern of throwing up roadblocks for Floridians attempting to hold government accountable,” said Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democrat, who is Scott’s leading re-election rival.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant said, “”While this move is clearly an act of damage-control from a campaign in chaos, this represents a major victory for the people of Florida who have suffered so many voter suppression efforts under the Rick Scott administration.”
And, the ACLU of Florida’s Executive Director, Howard Simon, said in a statement:
“As we’ve stated since our initial lawsuit challenging the voter purge, there was never any evidence that there was a problem that the purge would fix, but that the purge was simply another voter suppression tool justified by the ginned-up phantom of ‘voter fraud.’ It now appears that the very database that Secretary Detzner and Governor Scott pinned their hopes on and that we had warned was too unreliable to be used for elections is ultimately the voter purge’s undoing.
“At meeting after meeting of Secretary Detzner’s tour of the state in an attempt to generate support for the so-called ‘Project Integrity’ voter purge, many of the state’s Supervisors of Elections raised the same concerns that we shared about the purge effort, and chief among those concerns was its dependence on a flawed and unreliable federal database. We thank those county Supervisors of Elections who raised the alarm and spoke out against what was not in fact a project about ‘integrity,’ but a transparently political effort to suppress the vote.
“Restoring trust in our state’s elections requires more than paying lip-service to ‘integrity’ while at the same time creating new barriers for legitimate voters. It was irresponsible for Gov. Scott to undermine faith in our elections by creating fear that our voter rolls were filled with illegitimate voters when there was no evidence to suggest it. Today’s announcement confirms that the purge itself was the real threat to election integrity all along.
“Although the purge is dead for the 2014 election, we will remain vigilant against any other effort to make it harder for Floridians to vote and will continue to work to ensure that every legitimate voter still has a voice in our democracy.”
Since the feds will be tweaking the immigration database until 2015, it is unclear if or when the state will take up the voter purge, again.
Whether Scott wins re-election this year will be a big indicator.
Following the news that the purge was halted, Scott maintained that the voter purge itself is a good idea.
He said during a press gaggle this week that his main concern is still the right to vote.
“I don’t want it to be diluted by somebody that doesn’t have the rights to vote,” he said. “The national database is doing some changes. The secretary of state’s office is working with them. So, they are working to make sure everything is right. I don’t want anybody’s sacred right to be diluted.”