Floridas latest elections controversy began in the smallest of ways: a five-minute chat a year ago between Gov. Rick Scott and his top election official.
At the time, about February 2011, the newly elected governor was touring the office run by then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who put on a presentation about Floridas voting rolls and elections issues for the political newcomer.
Thats when Scott a Republican who campaigned as an immigration hardliner asked a simple question: How do we know everyone on the rolls is a U.S. citizen?
I said it was an honor system, Browning recalls. Thats how its always been done.
People dont always tell the truth, Browning recalled Scott saying.
So Browning decided to find out how many noncitizens were actually on the rolls.
Now, more than a year later, the effort that stemmed from that chat has produced three federal lawsuits, widespread suspicion and bitter partisanship, echoing the recriminations of Floridas controversial 2000 elections that still haunt the state today.
The latest suit was filed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which claims Floridas purge program violates two federal voting laws. Florida denies the charges.
To those on the political left, the voter purge looks like a concerted effort by Republicans to get an edge at the ballot box. But in the words and deeds of Browning, Scott and elections officials in Florida, the purge looks like a poorly managed program that became unexpectedly controversial to an administration filled with political newcomers.
Browning was one of the few seasoned Florida officials on Scotts leadership team. He served for 26 years as Pasco Countys elections supervisor. He then became Floridas secretary of state and oversaw two major elections in 2006 and 2008 without much controversy a rarity in Florida before Scott called him back to Tallahassee.
In Washington, President Obamas administration was suspicious of Scotts effort to spot noncitizens and remove them from the rolls. The request came around the same time Scott signed a law cracking down on voter-registration drives and eliminating early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. Some liberals are suspicious of Browning because, in 2010, he was the public face of an unsuccessful conservative push -- funded partly by a front group linked to the billionaire Koch brothers -- to stop two Florida anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments. Browning said he didnt know they contributed.
As part of its noncitizen program, Florida wanted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to give the state access to a mammoth immigration database called SAVE. DHS has refused since October 2011.
Brownings elections division then relied on another state agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which had limited and often-outdated citizenship information that carried a high risk of making lawful voters look like noncitizens.
The first list came back: 182,000 potential noncitizens on the voter rolls.
After more work and reshaping, the elections division produced a second list of nearly 25,000 potential voters.
The numbers were high. Too high for Browning.
Browning knew the programmatic, political and legal pitfalls of the noncitizen voter-purge program. He knew the voter rolls like any massive database has errors. And comparing the rolls to another database can compound those errors.