LAUDERHILL -- The state's top elections official was in South Florida on Wednesday to push one of Gov. Rick Scott's most controversial moves: An effort to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner ran smack into Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, who peppered him with critical questions and left thinking there were too few answers to have confidence in a new version of the program.
For the first time in South Florida, Detzner and elections division chief Maria Matthews described their plan to compare the state's registered voters with information in the state driver's license database and a federal database of non-citizens before sending the information to elections supervisors for action.
They said access to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security database and using more human reviewers instead of heavily relying on technology are the big improvements from a failed 2012 effort.
"I don't think I got my questions answered today in any way whatsoever," Bucher said. "I can't find any kind of real information other than trust me, and we did that last year."
Bucher said she wasn't certain she'd go along with the Scott administraton's latest effort to purge the voter rolls. Broward Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes said she "probably" would but first wants more information from the state.
One of the biggest unanswered questions is the size of the problem.
Democratic critics of the Republican governor's effort said it's minuscule -- if it even exists.
That sentiment was reflected in several of the questions audience members submitted to Detzner. "There are more shark attacks each year in Florida than voter fraud cases," wrote Don Isaacson. "Why is the Florida government wasting my tax money on a non-existent problem? How much money is wasted on the purge process?"
During and after the two-hour session at Snipes' office in Lauderhill, Detzner said he had no way of knowing the extent of the problem.
But, he said, he and the state's 67 county supervisors of elections have a duty to do everything they can to ensure the integrity of the voting rolls.
That's what led him to Broward on Wednesday, where he met with five county supervisors of elections on the last day of his five-city "Integrity Tour." About 80 people, many of whom are political activists, attended.
Last year, the state initially claimed to have identified 182,000 non-citizens who'd registered to vote, a number that eventually fell to 198. As doubts about the accuracy intensified, the effort ended shortly before the 2012 election.
"There were some missteps," Matthews conceded.
Bucher said there were many. She raised the case of a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran who lives in Broward and was mistakenly flagged during last year's aborted voter roll purge. And she said her office in Palm Beach County had a case this year in which a felon whose voting rights were restored was wrongly identified by the state as someone who was still ineligible to vote.
She also pressed for details about how the federal database gets its information and how often it's updated. "If we don't know where that information comes from, that makes me kind of nervous," she said.
Bucher began one of her critical questions, "with all due respect Mr. Secretary," and ended up observing the "record is not very good." Detzner eventually grew weary of Bucher's questioning -- she posed more than 18 queries to Detzner and Matthews -- and cut her off. "You're interrupting and taking away time from public input."
One of the leading critics last year, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, who accused the Republican governor of using the roll cleanup as a ruse to disenfranchise voters just months before a presidential election, has great concerns about the new effort, which comes as Scott faces his own re-election. Deutch's office turned up the case last year of a 91-year-old veteran who'd been labeled by the state as a possible non-citizen who nonetheless was registered to vote.
University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, who attended an earlier session but not Wednesday's, said the state should spend time and effort on making voting easier and reducing lines.
"This search for non-citizens on the rolls is a fool's errand. And it's one that is costing taxpayer dollars and has been proven to be a failure in the past," Smith said. "This is not a problem. This is a political witch hunt that is not based in any reality."
Detzner, who said he didn't know when the effort would start or how much it would cost, defended it as worthwhile.
"I have not met with a single Floridian ... who ever suggested that we ought to keep ineligible people on the voting rolls. I don't know anybody in this room who would like their vote negated by an ineligible voter," he said. "I will be the first to cheer if we don't have anybody to remove. But I don't think that's realistic, and we are going to proceed."
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