How Rick Scott’s noncitizen voter purge started small and then blew up

Florida’s 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 Florida’s voting rolls and elections issues for the political newcomer.

That’s 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. “That’s how it’s always been done.”

“People don’t 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 Florida’s controversial 2000 elections that still haunt the state today.

The latest suit was filed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which claims Florida’s 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 Scott’s leadership team. He served for 26 years as Pasco County’s elections supervisor. He then became Florida’s 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 Obama’s administration was suspicious of Scott’s 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 didn’t 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.

Browning’s 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.

So if the state sent elections supervisors a list that wasn’t vetted enough, it would cause an uproar. Democrats and liberal elections groups and civil-rights groups, long aligned with the U.S. Department of Justice, would pounce, hold press conferences, gin up the news media and sue. And, because the noncitizen effort by definition targeted immigrants, it would disproportionately hit Hispanics and Haitians. Indeed, about 87 percent of those on the 2,700-person list are minorities.

Lastly, the frontline officials in charge of each county’s voting rolls — the 67 election supervisors, the overwhelming majority of them elected — would balk.

Browning refused to release the list.

“I consciously decided not to get them in the loop,” Browning said. “I didn’t feel comfortable rolling this initiative out. Something was telling me this isn’t going to fly. We didn’t have our I’s dotted and T’s crossed when I was there.”

Browning called it his “Spidey sense,” and said he was not just concerned with the numbers, but how they were obtained. His agency wasn’t doing the checking. Instead, it shipped names to highway safety, which performed the checks.

“We were not getting first-hand data,” he said. “I wanted to make we are 99.9 percent certain. I wanted to make sure the data was good if it went out under my name.”

Browning said there’s a good chance the names would never have been released. It wasn’t a “front-burner issue. Rick Scott didn’t order me to do this.”

All of that appeared to change by coincidence in February.

Browning was leaving office. At the same time, a local television reporter at NBC2 in Fort Myers decided to match Lee County voter rolls with a list of people who were excused from jury service after they said they were noncitizens. NBC2 reported finding nearly 100 noncitizens on the rolls. The local elections supervisor has found more than 40.

Republicans, long concerned that phony voters were on the rolls, started wondering what the state was doing about noncitizen voters. Scott and Browning’s successor, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, felt pressured to release the list, which the state did in April, Browning said.

“I would not have sent the list to the counties,” Browning said, adding he “cannot second-guess Secretary Detzner because I wasn’t up there. I don’t know what the discussions were.”

Still, Browning said he would have “given a great deal of pushback about sending any list out.”

The Scott administration figured that legitimate citizens listed as potential noncitizens weren’t really in danger of having their voting rights removed. After all, they would have up to 60 days to prove their citizenship and remain on the rolls. And even if they were removed, they could be reinstated rather easily or even cast provisional ballots on Election Day in worst-case scenarios.

So in April, after checking and rechecking its list, the state sent the supervisors a batch of nearly 2,700 names.

It was filled with the high level of false positives that Browning feared. One potential noncitizen, Bill Internicola, was anything but. The Broward resident is a U.S. born World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He held a press conference with Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch to bash the purge.

So far, more than 500 people on the list have been identified as actual citizens. More than 140 have been identified as noncitizens and about 50 may have unlawfully cast a ballot, Scott said on Monday.

When asked about Browning’s recollection of events and why the state decided to release the list when it did, Scott didn’t answer.

“What I’m focused on is making sure that no U.S. citizen — no Florida citizen’s — vote is diluted by noncitizens,” Scott said Tuesday.

“The debate is over about whether people are out there that are non U.S. citizens who registered to vote. They have,” Scott said. “There’s no debate about whether they’ve voted. They have. There’s no debate that they can impact elections. They can.”

Scott went on to say his administration had to sue Homeland Security the day before because it “stonewalled” the state’s request for the citizenship database.

But the Justice Department said that Florida didn’t meet the requirements to use the database. And it accused Florida in its new lawsuit of violating the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits purges within 90 days of a federal election. The American Civil Liberties sued Florida on Friday.

“Rick Scott’s intent has been mischaracterized. He wants to do the right thing,” Browning said. “For every ineligible voter on the rolls, it cheapens the vote of those legally on the rolls.”

What about eligible voters who could get kicked off the rolls?

“It’s injustice,” Browning replied. “The intent of the state is not to take people off the rolls.”

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