Nothing to SAVE: Florida's new voter purge rankles progressive groups

It stands to reason that state officials would be a little bit cautious about repeating so desperate a mistake as last year's clearly political voter purge. That calamity, after all, drew the ire of nearly everyone – supervisors of elections, minorities, the ACLU, Eric (fucking) Holder, anybody with a sense of reason – while simultaneously accomplishing nothing. A bitch list of 180,000 possibly illegal voters was scraped down to just 2,600, of which about 80 eventually revealed themselves to be a problem. That's right, 80 – 80 out of 12 million.

But, like most things in Florida, reason has little room as a key ingredient. Following this summer's (rather poor) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to dismantle to the Voting Rights Act (because, you know, racism is over), Gov. Rick Scott started spinning his bearing-less wheels about revisiting the notion of making minorities beg for their right to vote. Democrats, naturally, aren't buying it, but the governor has been known to have his way regardless. And last week, through political ventriloquism, Scott sent his message on a road trip – an "Integrity Tour," if you will – via the mouth of Secretary of State Ken Detzner. Detzner aimed to hold roundtables with the state's 67 supervisors of elections, while reluctantly inviting citizens and press to gawk along for the sake of transparency. Detzner, though, was reportedly not terribly forthcoming at any of the tour's five stops, choosing instead to fall upon the old trope that he's just doing his job, and, also, nobody likes illegals voting, right? Hmm.

The biggest development in this year's purge reboot is that Detzner and the local supervisors will likely have access to the Department of Homeland Security System Alien Verification for Entitlements Program (SAVE) database, instead of just the lousy drivers license records they employed last year before virtually giving up. And, sure, the presence of a federal database sounds good and all – like it's the absolute last word, the permanent record, the holy grail – but it likely isn't. A coalition of progressive groups showed up along the tour to try to bend Detzner's ear on some issues that they see with both the law that Detzner is "enforcing" and the SAVE database; their queries went mostly unanswered. IMAGINE THAT.

Anyway, it may not be the sexiest political news clogging your transom right now – our local topical tantrums will likely have to wait for Republicans in Washington to stop their baseless crying – but you should be aware that the threat of a purge is real, if not really defined. And it's potentially worse for pretending that it's so much better. This afternoon, the progressive groups released the following missive outlining some of the more glaring gaps in the impending purge plan, and they are startling. Presented for your perusal:


With Civil Rights and Immigrant Justice Concerns Unaddressed and Ignored, Florida’s Purge Tour Raised More Questions Than it Answered

(FORT LAUDERDALE) - Today Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner concluded the last of five meetings across the state, meetings supposedly designed to inform Supervisors of Elections and the public about Florida’s latest effort to remove alleged noncitizens from the voting rolls. Joined by his director of elections Maria Matthews, Detzner confirmed that he is creating a list of suspected noncitizen voters by cross-checking the Department of Homeland Security System Alien Verification for Entitlements Program (SAVE) database with the state’s voter data. After five days of discussion, however, it is clear that the use of SAVE data is inaccurate, unfair, poorly thought out and alarmingly similar to the error-ridden purges we have seen in the past.

Members from our organizations were present at every stop of the tour, bringing our concerns about the implementation of the renewed purge program. Chief among these concerns are:

  • The federal SAVE database does not identify whether a person is a citizen or a noncitizen. Designed to verify immigration status in order to determine one’s eligibility for various public benefits, SAVE is a massive compilation of records from numerous other databases about individuals who have interacted with the immigration system over the years. It is not a definitive or accurate list of U.S. citizens, and it should not be used to purge voters.

  • Even the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges that the SAVE database is a non-definitive source for determining citizenship. In the agency’s August 2012 agreement with Florida, which allowed the state to access SAVE, it says in writing that “the inability of the SAVE Program to verify [a person's] citizenship does not necessarily mean that [the person is] not a citizen of the United States and ineligible to vote.”

  • Database matching programs are notoriously unreliable. Data entry errors and changing information can produce false matches. Spanish and Creole surnames are especially vulnerable to database input error, while immigration status is particularly complex. Under the purge procedure, Florida’s naturalized citizens may be at risk of getting hit with notice letters, hearing dates, requirements to show their papers, and the costs of replacing lost documents. These confusing and intimidating measures will prevent people from voting, and boils down to treating naturalized citizens differently than those born in the U.S.

On each day of Detzner’s tour, we came prepared with questions. Yet despite the state’s claim that questions from the public would be accepted – and despite the fact that our questions were submitted numerous times, from various people across the state – the great majority were not addressed. With the public meetings now cut off, here are some questions that still need real answers. True integrity demands that they be answered.

Questions about the Voter Purge that the Rick Scott Administration Has Failed to Answer

1. The Department of Homeland Security’s Memorandum of Agreement with Florida specifically states that the SAVE database cannot accurately verify whether or not individuals are citizens. Why are we using such a database, and how do you reconcile the purge program when this data is explicitly non-definitive?

2. Why can't a citizen who is being questioned about their immigration status simply fill out an affidavit of citizenship and vote? Everybody else who fills out voter registration forms makes this same pledge, under the penalty of perjury.

3. What is the procedure for people who are wrongly identified as noncitizens to quickly correct their names in the system and vote by a regular ballot, in a way that does not create hardship for the voter? (If a naturalization certificate is lost, a replacement copy costs $345, and the wait time for processing can take up to five months.)

4. How many cases of noncitizen voting have actually occurred in Florida over the past five years? Where is the Department of State’s basic research on the extent of the so-called “problem” of noncitizen voting, and why hasn’t this information been shared before launching this statewide initiative?

5. How many of the 67 Supervisors of Elections have indicated a problem with noncitizen voting, or asked for the Department’s assistance through this purge program?

6. Who asked the Department to initiate the alleged noncitizen voter list maintenance last year?  And this year?

7. The SAVE database is a fee-based system, which would make it more expensive than the 2012 purge, which cost an estimated $100,000. What is the estimated taxpayer cost of this year’s program?

We’d hoped that Detzner’s tour could provide assurance that Florida’s latest purge effort would be different from what we have seen before. Yet when pushed to explain how this initiative is different from error-riddled prior purges, Detzner and his staff either struggled to answer basic questions or chose to ignore them altogether. They could not explain their reliance on inaccurate SAVE data, nor could they illuminate the need for launching another purge at all.

However, we already know the answers here. Just as it was in 2012, this purge is a solution in search of a problem. And by threatening to intimidate Florida’s naturalized citizens away from the ballot box, it could undermine the most fundamental right in our democracy – the right to vote. We urge all 67 Supervisors of Elections to refrain from using the SAVE database to remove any individuals from the voter rolls.


Advancement Project

America Votes

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida

Common Cause

Fair Elections Legal Network

Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates

Florida Institute for Reform & Empowerment

Florida New Majority

Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition

League of United Latin American Citizens

National Congress of Black Women Florida

Organize Now

Progress Florida

Project Vote

Florida Immigrant Coalition

League of United Latin American Citizens

South Florida Voices for Working Families

SEIU Florida

National Council of La Raza

Mi Familia Vota


Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.