Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has been on a public relations mission to defend his plan to use federal Homeland Security data to search for noncitizens on the voting rolls.
The key to the revamped process is using a federal resource of data, called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE.
Detzner defended the use of SAVE for voter registration purposes during a Nov. 4 hearing before the Senate committee on ethics and elections. He said using SAVE to check voter registration is one of its primary uses.
"In fact, Homeland Security’s ‘benefit categories’ lists checking voter registration citizenship status as one of its main functions. The federal government allows SAVE to be used and check legal status as part of an ensuring the eligibility of registered voters."
Detzner said SAVE is used nationwide to verify citizenship for entitlement programs (such as Medicaid), so he argued that the state should be confident that it will provide credible information for elections officials.
"SAVE has really been a game-changer when it comes to (voter) list maintenance," he said.
We wanted to check this part of Detzner’s claim: Does Homeland Security list checking voter registration citizenship status as one of its main functions?
Is voter registration one of the main purposes of SAVE?
A document from the Department of Homeland Security lists reasons that government agencies routinely use SAVE to check citizenship status, and the list includes voter registration purposes.
Implemented in 1987, SAVE was originally intended to verify eligibility for government benefits, programs and licensing, including Medicaid or welfare, driver’s licenses, government education loans, unemployment compensation, housing assistance or tax exemptions. Over the years, the uses have expanded.
SAVE is intended to show if someone is not a citizen, but it does not contain a database of people who are U.S. citizens. That’s why some voting rights groups have argued that SAVE is not a foolproof method to clean up the voter rolls.
We wondered what the data said on how often SAVE was used to check voter registration. SAVE includes a query code number for each type of benefit, and agencies are also assigned individual codes.
For fiscal year 2013, SAVE had 13,220,774 queries nationwide. The most common query was for driver’s licenses — that represented about one-third of the queries, or about 4.5 million. Another big category was queries relating to Social Security; those added up to more than 3.5 million.
DHS compiled the number of nationwide queries for voter registration and found 13,100 — so less than 1 percent of the 13 million queries.
(In fiscal year 2013 in Florida, there were about one million SAVE queries by Florida agencies, and the majority were for driver’s licenses and health and social services.)
We sent Detzner’s spokeswoman a summary of our nationwide findings and asked for any documentation to support that one of the main functions of SAVE is to check voter registration.
"The secretary’s comment was about the primary functions of SAVE," said Brittany Lesser in an email. "The document you reference and the DHS quote both verify SAVE’s purposes, which includes checking voter registration.
Most of the current uses of SAVE pertain to benefits or licenses. One category pertains to "badging agencies" that need to determine eligibility to access certain facilities. The list also includes "agencies that check citizenship status for voter registration."
Voter registration was listed second to last on the list, but DHS spokesman Steven Blando told PolitiFact Florida that the order of uses has no significance.
We asked Blando does DHS consider voter registration to be a "main function" of SAVE?
"The SAVE database was not designed for this purpose and does not contain information about citizens born in the United States," Blando said. "It is not a main function by volume or number of agencies."
Not all states use SAVE to check voter information. In 2005, Maricopa County, Ariz., was the first agency to enter into an agreement with the SAVE Program for voter registration, and a few other Arizona counties were added later, according to DHS spokesman Christopher Bentley. By 2013, Florida, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina had reached similar agreements. States with pending applications to use SAVE for voter lists include Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia.
Detzner told state legislators that one of the "main functions" of the Department of Homeland Security’s SAVE database is "checking voter registration citizenship status."
A federal document lists voter registration as one of the benefits that SAVE data can be used for to check citizenship status. However, we found no documentation to support Detzner’s claim that voter registration is one of its "main functions."
SAVE is primarily used for agencies to check citizenship status for public benefits or driver’s licenses. Using SAVE to check voter registration eligibility is a more recent use, and only in effect in four states, plus a few Arizona counties. For fiscal year 2013, voter registration queries equaled less than 1 percent of the searches.
We rate this claim False.