Gov. Rick Scott delivers mea culpa on voter purge

In a rare display of contrition coming to a Florida city near you, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is acknowledging what civil rights groups and local elections officials had already been saying: Last year’s attempted purge of noncitizens from voter rolls was fundamentally flawed.

“I accept responsibility for the effort,” Scott’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, told the Herald/Times. “It could have been better. It should have been better.”

Detzner, who serves as Scott’s top elections official, is repeating the mea culpa during a five-day road tour that concludes this week in Orlando, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale. The apology is part of a sales pitch to the public and supervisors of elections that a second attempt to remove noncitizens from voter rolls, “Project Integrity”, will be better.

“We learned from the mistakes we made,” Detzner said. “We won’t make the same mistakes.”

But forgiveness is hardly automatic. While encouraged that the admission was made, some said they are hesitant to trust state officials.

“It was quite refreshing that Ken Detzner has taken responsibility, because he really should be contrite,” said Brian Corley, Pasco’s supervisor of elections. “I’d like to think the intentions are pure, but this time I’ll be withholding judgment. They don’t have a lot of credibility with me right now.”

After initially identifying 182,000 suspected non-U.S. citizens by relying on data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the state last year shrank its list to 2,600 and then to 198 before election supervisors halted their searches. Detzner said records for the new effort to remove non-citizens are “credible and reliable”, culled from a set of data used by federal agencies called SAVE, short for Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.

But unlike last year, each one identified as a non-citizen will be reviewed by a state employee, said Detzner and Maria Matthews, the director of the Division of Elections, during kick-off meetings with supervisors and residents in Panama City and Jacksonville. Only after the review will the suspected noncitizen be forwarded on to the supervisor of elections. And unlike last year, when supervisors were sent a list of names of suspected noncitizens with no backup documentation, the next purge will provide relevant supporting evidence, Matthews and Detzner said.

“There will be mistakes,” Matthews said Thursday in Panama City. “But overall, you should be comfortable with what we send you.”

Many supervisors say they are more optimistic. Lori Edwards, Polk County’s supervisor, called last year’s purge “sloppy, slapdash and inaccurate.” Edwards plans to attend a presentation in Orlando on Monday, but already she likes what she hears.

“It looks like they got the message,” Edwards said. “They knew it blew up in their face and don’t want that to happen again.”

Still, there is much to clarify. Just how up-to-date is the SAVE data? Matthews said she wasn’t sure how frequently records of citizenship for those who are sworn in during naturalization ceremonies are entered into the system. And even after state officials gained access to the SAVE database last year, residents like Yeral Arroliga, 25, who immigrated from Nicaragua in 1995 and has been a Florida voter since 2007, were wrongly identified as noncitizens. Four Polk County residents born in Puerto Rico, which automatically qualifies them for U.S. citizenship, were identified as noncitizens.

Matthews told supervisors that it will be up to them to determine the status of voters. Still to be determined: How does one determine who is a citizen? What documents, aside from passports, copies of birth certificates and naturalization certificates, prove citizenship? If there are no documents, can supervisors make a determination? Matthews is leaving it to the locals.

Such wide latitude makes some supervisors unsure how to proceed.

“I don’t have anyone on my staff who is an immigration specialist,” said Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County’s elections supervisor. “If we have any questions, I don’t know who we’re going to take it to.”

Those questions, plus potential holes in the SAVE database involving those born abroad whose parents were U.S. citizens, have voting rights groups that opposed the initial purge on high alert.

“We don’t know how many the state will identify this year,” said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program. “There are lot of vagaries to the process. There is no certain or defined process. In a state like Florida known for its electoral dysfunction, that’s not a good thing.”

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@tampabay.com.