SEBRING - Ken Detzner wants to counties to purge voter rolls again. After last year's fuss, however, Florida's secretary of state is touring the state to explain Project Integrity.
Penny Ogg will listen, but Highlands County's elections supervisor isn't convinced another state-led purge is necessary.
"Through transparency and the statutory due-process protection afforded to every voter, we can ensure the continued integrity of our voter rolls while protecting the voting rights of eligible voters from those who may cast an illegal vote," Detzner said in a press release last week.
"I am going to the roundtable discussion with Secretary Detzner in Orlando on Oct. 7," Ogg said. "After that meeting, we hope to have better information regarding this issue since we, as supervisors, have not been given details of how they plan to roll out this new phase." More meetings are scheduled in Panama City, Jacksonville, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale.
Nearly all the 67 elections supervisors scrapped last year's purge - requested by Gov. Rick Scott - after they discovered the majority of 2,600 voters flagged by Detzner's office were eligible. Most were minorities or had Hispanic-sounding surnames. Last year's Florida crossmatched dataset included the names of naturalized citizens and even some who were born in the U.S.
Last year, Ogg spent 10 to 20 hours checking five voters from that list. Although three had no local voting record, she sent letters to all five; four came back undeliverable. She was contacted by the father of the fifth.
"The father said his son was living in Japan," Ogg said. Joe Campbell, a Democrat who was the election supervisor at the time, didn't remove any names from the local list.
Ogg, a Republican, agreed. "We need positive proof that they aren't citizens to remove someone. We need a death certificate or something like that. We don't just take information over the phone. The same is true of the state list."
Local supervisors have the sole authority to remove a voter's name. "Because we're elected by the people in this county," Ogg said. "It puts a check on the system. That's not something that's done in Tallahassee. It's done here."
Despite the "Project Integrity" name, Detzner's announcement drew fire from Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, who tweeted: "There is no greater 'voter advocate' or 'voter roll integrity advocate' than a Supervisor of Elections!"
County supervisors of elections were in the crosshairs of last year's problematic purge. Polk County elections supervisor Lori Edwards, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said local officials' willingness to participate this time will depend on the integrity of the state's data.
"We're going to repeatedly request from the Division of Elections that before they send us the information, they carefully scrutinize the data and make sure it's reliable. Providing documentation is the key. If you can show me that they're here on a green card, fine. Then I'll say hey, you might not be a citizen. But if you just say they're on some list somewhere, that's not enough," she said.
Like Edwards, Corley said that anyone who is ineligible should be removed from the rolls. The non-citizen "audit" should be a part of routine voter-list maintenance like removing dead voters or convicted felons, Corley said.
"We already have a process in place," Ogg said. Every other year, her office asks how long it's been since a voter voted. Letters ask if the voter is still there, if the address is correct, and if the voter should still be registered in the county. If there's no reply, the voter is moved to an inactive list.
"We're in the process of doing that now," Ogg said
"The problem is when you go through this process of doing an audit, it's got to be done right and devoid of the perceptions of politics. I think, sadly, what we saw take place last year didn't meet that litmus test," Corley said.
"I don't think it was maliciously done," Ogg said, "I just think it was a little hurried."
A voting group coalition representing minorities sued the state over the purge, but the lawsuit was dismissed when a U.S. Supreme Court this summer tossed out part of the federal Voting Rights Act. Some critics accused Scott, who is running for another term in 2014, of pushing the non-citizen voter purges because they resonate with tea party activists and conservatives in his base.
Scott blamed last year's faulty data on President Barack Obama's administration because the Department of Homeland Security refused to grant Detzner access to the System Alien Verification for Entitlements Program database. Federal officials and the state entered an agreement allowing Detzner to use SAVE database last summer.
This time, Detzner's office is also seeking supervisors' input into the process. However, initial reaction showed the supervisors remain dubious.
"I think we all were skeptical," Ogg said. "We didn't think we got accurate information."
"From our office's perspective, we will be continuing the policy that we had on the previous purge, in that we will carefully look at any information we receive and make our own investigation into any attached documentation before finalizing any decision concerning Highlands County voters," Ogg said.
Corley gave Detzner credit for reaching out to the supervisors this time. "I hope round two is a whole lot more accurate and professional than round one because that was amateur hour. That was embarrassing."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story