Florida should protect elections by purging noncitizen voters

When the Florida Department of State began contacting county elections supervisors with a directive to determine whether a number of registered voters were U.S. citizens, the timing was curious with a presidential election only months away.

But the overarching goal, to purge voting rolls of noncitizens, is inarguably valid. The integrity of elections must be maintained and protected.

Charges of political gain are understandable given the highly partisan atmosphere in Florida, where Republican-passed laws on elections have come under legal attack by Democrats and others.

The Department of State could have avoided accusations of political gamesmanship had the agency notified elections supervisors soon after receiving a database audit identifying almost 2,700 Florida residents as possible noncitizens. The state motor vehicle agency produced that list in April 2011.

The Manatee County elections office only received a list of 10 names to check. The vast majority, almost 2,000, reside in Miami-Dade. A Miami Herald computer analysis of elections records discovered that Hispanic, Democratic and independent-leaning voters are the most likely to be screened for citizenship with whites and Republicans least likely, further fueling suspicions of a political purge.

The state compiled the lists by comparing voter registration information with a drivers license database.

Officials initially came up with 182,000 registered voters as possible noncitizens but that computer database search did not feature the most recently updated information. The states is still examining the longer list before filing additional names with supervisors.

At this week's annual conference of the state's 67 county elections supervisors, state officials were quizzed sharply -- with skepticism expressed about a purge of voting rolls.

One supervisor noted that two voters, both citizens, ended up on the list of potentially ineligible voters because their drivers license numbers had one wrong digit.

That puts the validity of the state's information in doubt -- with the burden of proof falling on legitimate voters and the time-consuming task of collecting that proof and purging the rolls on elections supervisors.

Regardless, the dilemma must be resolved and the voting rolls cleansed of noncitizens. Florida law requires that voters be U.S. citizens and a state resident with no felony record.

But since noncitizens can obtain drivers licenses, some have been able to register to vote. That situation is far less likely to occur in the future.

The federal REAL ID Act, which requires proof of citizenship in order to get or renew a drivers license, took effect in Florida in 2010. But because licenses are valid for eight years, the potential for noncitizens maintaining their voting status will exist for a number of years -- unless elections officials can track them down.

This comes amid another highly contentious and pivotal presidential election. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by a razor-thin margin, only 537 votes.

Thus, noncitizens could be the swing votes should this campaign to cleanse the rolls fail. That cannot be allowed to happen, despite the political accusations and deep skepticism surrounding this issue.