Many questions, few answers on state’s voter purge plan

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s mea culpa tour to tout the state’s revamped noncitizen voter purge led to a tense exchange Wednesday with an election supervisor miffed about the state’s botched efforts last year.

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher peppered Detzner and his staff with questions about the process and the accuracy of the data to be used in the purge.

“Where does that data come from, how often is it updated: every 10 years or every 10 minutes? ... I have a lot of concern that the people we got the database from are saying this is not comprehensive and definitive,” Bucher said during a meeting at Broward County’s Voting Equipment Center in Lauderhill.

Bucher’s questions revolved around the federal SAVE database that the state will use this time to search for non-citizen voters.

Detzner explained that state agencies currently use SAVE data to verify that Floridians are eligible for millions of dollars in entitlements.

“This is the best database we have to deal with,” he said. “This is important to get it right...It can be done and it will be done correctly.”

But Bucher wasn’t satisfied, nor were voting activists who egged her on at times in the audience. A Democrat elected to a nonpartisan office, Bucher continued to ask multiple questions.

Detzner, appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, tried to cut her off: “you are interrupting and going to take time away from public questions.”

Detzner refused to provide any timeline for sending new names of potential non-citizens to county supervisors. After the meeting while talking with reporters, he would not provide a ballpark timeline including whether he plans this year to start sending supervisors the names of potential noncitizens.

When asked when the state would launch a pilot he said “I wouldn’t give you a date honestly.”

But before the state launches the next round, Detzner said county supervisors who want access to SAVE data must sign an agreement through the Division of Elections and get trained on how to use the database and undergo a background check.

Also, Detzner said he first wants to continue collecting public input over the next few weeks even though the scheduled stops on his “Project Integrity” tour ended Wednesday.

Detzner said the purge could continue right up until election day in 2014.

County election officials and voting rights activists criticized the state’s initial effort in 2012 because it occurred during a busy presidential election year when supervisors were swamped with a long list of other challenges.

Adding to the chaos: the state’s data was bad.

The Division of Elections identified 182,000 potential non-citizens by using state drivers license data. The state whittled the list to about 2,600 and later to 198 before it halted the effort amid county elections officials’ complaints about the timing, the process and the high number of false positives that incorrectly listed actual citizens as potential noncitizens — including a Battle of the Bulge vet mentioned Wednesday by Bucher.

“I accept responsibility for issues and problems that occurred last year,” Detzner told the supervisors and activists at the meeting. “That’s why we suspended it.”

This time, the state will use information directly from the federal database, Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements. The state, after a fight with federal officials, obtained access to that data late in the process last year.

Unlike last year, each registered voter identified as a potential noncitizen will be reviewed by a state employee, officials said. Then the state will send supervisors a file of backup documentation. That didn’t happen last year.

Detzner noted that elections officials have a responsibility to maintain accurate voting rolls. Noncitizens shouldn’t be on them.

Activists in the audience asked about how many non-citizens were found guilty or prosecuted. Detzner’s staff responded that they didn’t have the answers and don’t know how many they will find this time.

“The program last year was deficient in data collection,” Detzner said.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes said that the majority of the potential non-citizen voters her county examined didn’t actually vote. In Florida, residents can register to vote when they get their drivers’ license. After the meeting, Snipes wouldn’t say whether she plans to go along with the process or not.

“I need to see it,” she said, adding that the timing as a statewide election approaches is “really critical.”

Herald/Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Marc Caputo contributed to this story.