NAPLES — It dominated the headlines and made waves on cable news networks, but by the time Election Day rolled around, a push to remove noncitizen voters from voter rolls seemed to fizzle out.
Southwest Florida election officials said the effort was far from forgotten and is likely to become part of regular maintenance that elections workers are required by law to do in off election years.
"Once we got into full-blown election, all that activity stopped because (we're) focused on executing the election," said Tim Durham, Collier County's deputy supervisor of elections. "What I expect in the coming months is we'll continue the noncitizen process."
Gov. Rick Scott last year initiated a push to have Florida election officials look for noncitizens on the voter rolls. That resulted in the state comparing driver's license information with voter registration data to come up with an initial list of more than 180,000 people suspected of being ineligible to vote.
The state culled back that list, and in April sent election officials a list of 2,600 people believed to be ineligible to vote. Collier had 27 names on the list; Lee County had 13 names.
Election officials across the state quickly raised questions about the list, and most halted work amid conflicting legal opinions about whether voters could be removed within 90 days of a federal election.
Collier and Lee counties, however, didn't suspend the purge.
The Justice Department in June sued the state to stop the voter purge. The suit said the purge violated the Voters Rights Act — of which five Florida counties, including Collier, are covered — because the state was trying to remove voters within 90 days of a federal election.
A federal judge, however, ruled there was nothing in federal voting laws to prevent the state from identifying noncitizens. The request also was denied, in part, because Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said the state had abandoned the purge.
But this fall, an agreement was reached for the Department of Homeland Security to provide access to the SAVE — Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements — database. That agreement gave election officials an opportunity to run the names against a federal database.
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Durham said based on information from the SAVE database, Collier County was able to restore the voting rights of 20 of the 27 people. Durham said the database "could not definitively say they were noncitizens." When that happens, he said, the voters' rights are restored.
Those 20 voters were eligible to vote in the general election, but Durham said he doesn't believe any cast a ballot.
Lee County was given similar access to the federal database. Several Lee voters had their rights restored in time for the general election.
Cheryl Johnson, director of voter registration in the Lee elections office, said seven people were removed from the voter registration rolls as potentially ineligible voters. Then, the state instructed elections officials to restore the seven voters' rights because of lack of proof that they were noncitizens.
Johnson said she didn't know if those seven voters cast a ballot.
"Even people who were removed had they showed up to vote and showed that they were U.S. citizens would have been allowed to vote," she said.
Initially, two of the 13 people from the state's April list sent proof of citizenship, while two others chose not to respond, so those two were removed from the voter rolls. Lee elections officials removed the remaining nine but restored two of those voters' rights when they showed proof of citizenship.
Durham said while the removal of noncitizens from the voting rolls made waves this year, the process of removing voters from the rolls isn't out of the ordinary or controversial. In fact, Collier County will spend much of 2013 removing inactive voters from the voter rolls.
"It's a statutory process we follow," he said.
County officials will run the names against a post office database to compare addresses.
But don't expect Collier's rolls to get much smaller from inactive voters.
The county's "voter rolls are quite lean" and the county has a high participation rate in elections, Durham said.
__ Staff Writer Tracy X. Miguel contributed to this report.