ESTERO — Florida Gov. Rick Scott says he won't back down from the federal government in his effort to remove potentially ineligible voters from the state's rolls.
"The right to vote is a sacred right, and we're making sure that is not diluted by noncitizens. We've done the right thing," Scott said Wednesday in Estero. "As the governor, I'm going to enforce the laws of the land and I expect other government entities to do the same thing."
Scott spoke at Florida Citrus Mutual's annual conference at the Hyatt Coconut Point for about 30 minutes. He received a loud ovation from about 100 people attending the citrus industry's conference's first day when he said it was shocking there is still a conversation in the U.S. on whether or not non-U.S. citizens should have the right to vote.
Scott pioneered a push last year to identify and remove non-U.S. citizens from the rolls in Florida. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the state and called on it stop the ongoing purge because it is within 90 days of a federal election.
Asked for his response to the Justice Department's lawsuit on Wednesday, Scott said his administration is not performing a voter purge.
Florida's elections controversy began in a five-minute chat in February 2011 between Scott and then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning, his top election official. At the time, Browning showed Scott a presentation about Florida's voting rolls and elections issues for the political newcomer, the Miami Herald reported Wednesday.
That's when Scott — a Republican who campaigned as an immigration hardliner — asked a simple question: How do we know everyone on the rolls is a U.S. citizen?
"I said it was an honor system," Browning recalls. "That's how it's always been done."
"People don't always tell the truth," Browning recalled Scott saying. So, Browning decided to find out how many noncitizens were actually on the rolls.
Wednesday, Scott said his administration was forced to sue Homeland Security — a lawsuit filed Monday demanding access to a massive immigration database called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program, or SAVE — and that the action could not have been avoided.
"The (Florida) Secretary of State's office started asking for the right to access the Homeland Security database a year ago, and for whatever reason Homeland Security elected not to give it," Scott said. "We tried with a small sample using our motor vehicle data, and what we found was that non-citizens are voting in our races."
Earlier this year, state officials sent local election officials a list of more than 2,600 voters and asked them to check the names. Thirty-seven election offices found more than 500 legitimate citizens on the list and have removed 43 voters.
However, some election officials have raised questions about the accuracy of the names on the list.
When asked about his level of certainty about the list on Wednesday, Scott didn't directly address the questions about accuracy. Instead, Scott said that is why his administration needs access to the Homeland Security database.
"No one has given us a rationale for why it hasn't been given," Scott said. "Look, this is not a partisan issue. I am still optimistic that we can work with the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to make sure that the races in Florida are honest and fair."
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida's 16th District attended the conference and said Scott is simply doing his job.
"We're not too far from the year 2000," said Rooney, a Republican. "I grew up in Palm Beach County, the home of the hanging chad. We've have to show the rest of our country and our electorate that we have rock solid voting system that people can feel confident that it is working."
Scott was also asked for his response to the Justice Department's argument that the purge violates federal law, which bans such steps within 90 days of a federal election.
"The rule in Florida is that non-citizens don't vote in our races," Scott responded. "I have not met one person in our country that thinks non-U.S. citizens should have the right to vote. We've done everything we can to work with Homeland Security and I'm still optimistic that they will give us access to the database."