The federal Department of Justice ordered a halt to Florida's systematic purge of suspected non-citizens from voter rolls, saying the effort breaks two federal laws.
And concerns about the accuracy of the state's list of suspected non-citizens led all three South Florida counties to stop using it to purge voter rolls.
Broward Supervisor Brenda Snipes, Palm Beach County's Susan Bucher and Miami-Dade's Penelope Townsley have all stopped efforts to remove non-citizens from voter rolls using the state's list, their offices said Friday.
The three counties have the overwhelming majority of suspected non-citizens from the state's list of about 2,631 sent for purging. Of the 1,970 suspected non-citizens in South Florida, only 16 were removed before all three counties stopped using the list.
Bucher said she hadn't removed any voters and in fact hadn't sent letters out because she was awaiting a more accurate list from the state. Miami-Dade had removed 13 people who admitted they weren't citizens. And Broward had received notice from only three people that they were not U.S. citizens.
The cleanup of the voter rolls was led by Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration also sent to the counties thousands of names of dead people to be removed, to reduce the potential for fraud come Election Day. But the inaccuracy of the list of suspected non-citizens caused increasing backlash, first from Florida Democratic congressmen and congresswomen, and now from the federal government.
Snagged in the list was a World War II vet from Davie, for example, who was born in Brooklyn.
Of the 2,117 in nine counties of South and Central Florida, 1,353 are Hispanic, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis of the data.
The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections advised supervisors today that they probably should stop what they are doing. A letter to the 67 supervisors, from Ron Labasky, the association’s general counsel, advised that they should cease further action.
Still, in an interview, Labasky said it will be up to each supervisors to judge what he or she is comfortable doing.
“Supervisors have a responsibility to maintain their rolls in the fashion they see fit. Absent a court order, they certainly have a prerogative to remove those voters,” he said.
The critical issue is a difference between state and federal laws involving dealing with exceptions. The state law stipulates that supervisors should remove people from the list when they have convincing evidence that they are not eligible to vote. If the problem involved allegations that the voters were felons or dead, the federal government likely would be concerned about their names being purged. But confessed non-citizens?
“I am hard pressed to think the Congress would say someone who is not a citizen, who admits it, should remain on the rolls,” Labasky said.
In the letter to the state from the Department of Justice, DOJ Voting Section Chief T. Christian Herren said it's unlawful to engage in wholesale removal of voters from the voting rolls within 90 days of an election for federal office, a May 16 deadline. The DOJ also said that in five Florida counties under protection by the Voting Rights Act, Collier, Hardy, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe, an action like this affecting voters cannot be done without DOJ approval.
"Please advise us whether the State intends to cease ... so the Department can determine what further action, if any, is necessary,'' a letter from says. Herren sent the letter to Florida's secretary of state Thursday evening.
Herren set a deadline of Wednesday, but DOJ officials declined comment on what action the department could take if the state were to forge ahead.
Many elections supervisors had already sent out letters to the registered voters on lists they received from the Department of State.
In Miami-Dade, 1,594 names were on the list. Deputy Elections Supervisor Christina White said , 447 had proved they were citizens and another 32 had called to say they intended to do so.
The county sent about 1,000 names back to the state asking for better vetting, hoping the names could be matched against the federal Homeland Security database. Until the list comes back with more accuracy, deputy supervisor Christina White said, “we will not be taking any action.’’
“From the statistics we’re dealing with in Miami-Dade,’’ she said, “the known error rate was pretty high.’’
In Broward, 261 letters were sent. About 50 of those people had been voting, Snipes said Thursday. She got 10 letters back, three of which were from admitted non-citizens.
Palm Beach County's 115 letters were first being translated into Spanish, Bucher said, and then she'd had hope the state could vett the names better using federal Homeland Security data. She was waiting for a better list when Friday's culmination of events led her to sit tight.
"My feeling is they’re lookingg at it. I’m sure great legal minds are concentrating on it, I hope, and they have until the middle of next week to settle it and make a determination,'' she said.
Broward elections supervisor Dr. Snipes had said Thursday that anyone who signs for the certified letter and fails to respond within 30 days would be removed from the rolls. She said state law requires her to act on evidence of ineligible voters, and she has no choice but to do so.
Friday afternoon her office said she would stop purging.
A person whose name is not on the registered voter list would be required to vote on a provisional ballot on Election Day, and would have two days to deliver proof of legitimacy. But the vote would not be counted on Election Day. Provisional ballots come into play in close elections.
Seminole County Supervisor Mike Ertel, a Republican, said he'd continue his efforts "in the absence of an injunction.'' He believes the work already under way in each county is the independent responsibility of each elections supervisor, regardless of who flagged the names in the first place.
The state has defended its effort, and Gov. Rick Scott, who led the voter-roll cleanup, has referred questions to the Department of State.
But that department on Thursday admitted its own concerns about the accuracy of the list.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he needs access to a federal Homeland Security database to improve it. He sent a letter late Thursday asking for access for the federal records, a request he said he'd made repeatedly over nine months. In his letter, he acknowledged that the state's "ability to validate a person’s legal status as up-to-date [is] limited.’’
Friday, Department of State spokesman Chris Cate said officials were still reviewing the late-received letter. But, he said, "bottom line is we are firmly committed to doing the right thing and preventing ineligible voters from being able to cast a ballot.''
Although this isn't the response from the federal government that Detzner was looking for, Cate said "at least we know the federal government knows we take ineligible voters on the voter rolls seriously. We hope the federal government will recognize the importance of accurate voter rolls and
support our efforts.''
Earlier this week, six congressmen and -women, led by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, sent a letter to the governor asking for the "immediate suspension'' of the voter-log cleanup effort, saying the list of suspected non-citizens has "questionable validity'' and thus would be "irresponsible'' to act on.
Already, the list snagged World War II veteran Bill Internicola, a Davie resident who was born in Brooklyn. Internicola has two birth years associated with his name, and said earlier this week that he was anxious to start driving as a young lad in the 1930s, and has the wrong date on his driver's license.
Snipes said that might be why state officials flagged him as a possible non-citizen.
The letter Internicola got by certified mail from Snipes' office is the same one others in Broward got. It said "the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office has received information from the state of Florida that you are not a United States citizen; however you are registered to vote.''
The letter to Gov. Scott from the Congress members was "unbelievable'' to Brian Burgess, communications director for the governor. Burgess wrote in an internal email, available under the governor's new Sunburst open access system, that "I cannot imagine a more serious threat to the integrity of our election system than foreign citizens choosing our leaders for us.''
He added: "I'm actually surprised that six members of Congress are urging the Governor to ignore this problem.''
Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson sent a separate letter expressing concerns.
Most counties are seeing very few, if any, people voluntarily responding by admitting they are not citizens. Orange has had three, Osceola two, Seminole, none. The more dramatic purge would occur if the supervisors took the next big step: dropping the names of voters who simply never respond.
Labasky said supervisors should hold off on that. And, he added, they have the legal authority to hold off regardless of federal orders.
John Maines contributed to this report.