Florida’s noncitizen voter-purge program roared back to life Wednesday when Gov. Rick Scott’s elections department produced a new list of 198 potentially ineligible voters — including 36 who might have cast ballots illegally.
The list, along with a stack of documentation, was sent to the independent county elections supervisors who are ultimately in charge of maintaining and purging voter rolls.
At the same time, state attorneys for each of the concerned counties could begin examining whether to bring criminal charges against any noncitizen who has voted.
The decision to push ahead with the controversial program just 41 days before Election Day in the nation’s biggest battleground state is already the subject of three separate federal lawsuits from a coalition of liberal-leaning groups as well as President Barack Obama’s Justice Department.
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Republicans are the least likely to be identified as potential noncitizens on the list when compared to independents and Democrats. Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites or African Americans to be flagged, a Miami Herald analysis determined.
Some of the people on the new list — based on new state access to a federal citizenship database — told The Herald that they are citizens. Others said they aren’t. Some who appeared to have voted, according to records, denied they did.
But Anita Caragan of Panama City Beach, a U.S. resident who is not a citizen, told a Herald reporter that she has been voting “for a long, long time.” Records show the no-party-affiliation noncitizen has cast ballots in 10 Florida elections since 2000.
The 73-year-old Caragan, who moved to the United States in 1970 from the Philippines, said that when she was living in Norfolk, Va., more than 35 years ago, she renewed her driver’s license and registered to vote at the same time, without realizing it was illegal.
Her husband — 82-year-old Emiliano, who also immigrated from the Philippines and served 21 years in the U.S. Navy — is a citizen but said he wasn’t aware his wife isn’t supposed to vote with just a green card. Both are planning to vote in November.
“Of course we’re going to vote,” he said. “We both have voter registration cards.”
Another potential noncitizen, Tampa resident Paul Hogg, appears to have voted in Broward County in the 2004 presidential elections, records show. Hogg refused to comment.
“I’m uncomfortable discussing this,” the 53-year-old registered Democrat told The Herald by phone before hanging up. “I’ll talk to the elections office.”
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office said the new list was produced by comparing Florida’s 12-million-person voter rolls with a federal immigration database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.
“This is a new process based on the SAVE database,” said Detzner’s spokesman, Chris Cate.
“The state is not telling county elections supervisors, ‘Remove these people.’ We are providing information for the counties to examine,” Cate said. “The supervisors have the discretion to keep anyone who is on this list on the voter rolls.”
Under state law, county elections supervisors will send a certified letter to anyone flagged as a potential noncitizen. The person will have to show proof of citizenship to remain on the rolls.
Those who fail to do so within 30 days can be purged from the voter rolls. Those whose certified mail is returned undeliverable will have another 30 days to prove citizenship.
For voters like Yeral Arroliga, it’s a pain.
Arroliga, 25, who immigrated from Nicaragua in 1995, said he already sent his proof of citizenship earlier this summer under the first version of the purge program. He’s ready to do it again, after ending up on the new list. But he’s not happy about it.
“It sounds like you have Big Brother watching over you,” he told The Herald. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Of this list of 198 potential noncitizens, about 58 percent are minority — 41 percent Hispanic and 17 percent black.
Democrats account for 44 percent of the potential noncitizens on this list and 41 percent of the overall active voter rolls, a Herald analysis found. More than a third of the list is made up of no-party-affiliation voters, who account for about a fifth of the rolls. Republicans make up 16 percent of the purge list and 36 percent of the overall voter rolls.
Of the 36 potential noncitizens who may have voted, 39 percent are African American and 25 percent Hispanic. About 64 percent of those voters are Democrats and 19 percent are independents.
The initial purge program was mired in controversy because of a disproportionately high number of actual citizens who were flagged as potential noncitizens. Under that program, the state assembled a list of nearly 2,700 names that it identified by comparing the voter rolls with a highway-safety database that often contained outdated citizenship information.
Miami-Dade — Florida’s largest county with the largest number of foreign-born residents — had the lion’s share of potential noncitizens initially identified: 1,600.
Miami-Dade’s elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley, found so many errors in the original list that she halted the purge program until the state improved its processes. Miami-Dade still has the highest number under the new list: 82.
The state says this new list is far better thanks to the SAVE database, maintained by the Department of Homeland Security
But purge opponents warn that SAVE is no silver bullet.
“Homeland Security recognizes the database is not perfect,” said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Our position is that it’s not appropriate to remove anyone from the rolls like this 90 days before an election. Mistakes can be made and we are urging caution.”
Last week, the Advancement Project and other groups settled part of a federal lawsuit with the state against the old purge program. The advocates, as well as the Justice Department, argue that, under a federal law nicknamed “motor voter,” the state can’t purge voters 90 days before an election.
The state says supervisors can push ahead with the purge because noncitizens aren’t entitled to protections afforded to lawful voters.
With the relaunching of the program, a judge will likely have to rule in the coming days on whether the state can proceed.
The program became a flashpoint months ago in the battle over voting rights. Conservatives argue the program is needed to help stop fraud. Liberals say it’s tantamount to “voter suppression” that targets minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.
There’s a good chance this crisis point could have been avoided a year ago when the state first asked Homeland Security for SAVE. The request was denied — even though DHS was supposed to give the state access under federal guidelines.
Homeland Security’s decision, in part, was based on the advice of the Department of Justice, where Attorney General Eric Holder’s staff has opposed a number of voter laws promulgated by Republican lawmakers throughout the nation.
The Justice Department sued the state over its voter purge this summer. The day before, the state sued Homeland Security for access to the SAVE database.
The state then received a favorable court ruling, leading DHS to give the state access to SAVE, which includes unique “alien” identifiers of immigrants who are both citizens and noncitizens. About 1,700 registered voters on the original list had alien identifiers recognized by SAVE. Of them, 209 were initially identified as noncitizens, however, the state as winnowed the list to 198.
Among those are some mysteries.
Consider the case of Montague Rodney, a 78-year-old Miami Democrat who records say has voted in 33 elections. He has been identified as a potential noncitizen voter.
“I’m not a citizen,” Rodney said by telephone when asked by a Herald reporter. “I haven’t voted.”
He then gave the phone to his daughter, Rachel Rodney, who insisted her father is a U.S. citizen who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She said her father gets forgetful, but she’ll make sure his voting status is sorted out before Election Day.
For North Miami resident Luckner Bastien, the list was an eye-opener. A native of Haiti and former U.S. Marine, he said he’s not a citizen and has no idea how he wound up listed as a registered voter.
The state’s voter rolls indicate he cast his first and only ballot in the disputed 2000 presidential elections, a month after he turned 18.
“That’s news to me,” he said in an interview with The Herald. “I never voted.”
It’s a third-degree felony for a noncitizen to register or vote. The governor has said he wants to make sure the voter rolls are stripped of unlawful voters whose ballots counteract the votes of the law-abiding electorate.
In targeting noncitizens, however, the state will disproportionately sweep up minorities who tend to comprise the bulk of the immigrant population.
The voter purge has put Neville Walters on the spot.
A 62-year-old North Miami Beach resident, Walters said he was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to Jamaica as a young boy before he immigrated to the United States in 1985.
He said he doesn’t know how he was registered to vote and that he doesn’t remember whether he cast ballots in seven elections since 2000, as records show.
“They sent me a voter registration paper; I never vote,” he said. “Maybe they made a mistake.”
Miami Herald staff writers Daniel Chang and Sergio R. Bustos contributed to this report.