TALLAHASSEE — Florida officials, responding to skeptical comments this week from county election supervisors, said they are now going to double-check whether or not 182,000 registered voters are U.S. citizens.
State officials announced late Thursday that the Florida agency that handles driver's licenses plans to check a federal database to verify the citizenship status of those initially identified as being in Florida legally but ineligible to vote.
The state has sent a list to county election supervisors of more than 2,600 people who have been identified as non-U.S. citizens. But state officials have also said there may be as many as 182,000 registered voters who are not eligible to vote. The move to remove the voters from the rolls comes just months before the critical 2012 elections where Florida is expected to be one of the states that could determine the election.
Local election supervisors this week complained to state officials that the original list was based on old information taken from 2011 and that they had already found inaccuracies in it.
The names will now be checked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"As a result, all of the potential non-citizen names we send to supervisors as part of this initiative will be based on much more current and reliable information," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Department of State.
Brian Corley, the Pasco County supervisor of elections, applauded what he called "the sudden tenacity" of the Department of State. During a statewide conference of election supervisors held this week Corley relayed how he had found two voters on the list that had been born in Ohio and Massachusetts.
During that conference, state election officials and an official with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles fielded questions from county election supervisors who were concerned about the quality of the information that had been given to them.
Gisela Salas, the director of the state Division of Elections, said at the meeting that the state was looking for ways to reassure local officials.
The Department of State has been trying for months to access a federal database that tracks citizenship but had been turned down. But the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles — which can access the database — said they would soon double-check the citizenship status of those on the list. State election officials said they would absorb the cost of the effort.
"It's disappointing (the federal government) will not give us direct access to their database, but we are very grateful to our state partners who understand the importance of having accurate voter rolls," Cate said.
There are currently more than 11 million active registered voters in the state, but a few thousand votes could make the difference in what is expected to be a tight race between President Barack Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in the Sunshine State.
Florida law requires voters to be a U.S. citizen residing in the state. Florida also does not allow someone to vote if they are a convicted felon and have not had their civil rights restored.
The state has been responsible for helping screen voters since 2006 when it launched a statewide voter registration database. The state database is supposed to check the names of registered voters against other databases, including ones that contain the names of people who have died and people who have been sent to prison.
Prior to the launch of the database, Florida had come under fire for previous efforts to remove felons from the voting rolls, including a purge that happened right before the 2000 presidential election. An effort to remove felons back in 2004 was halted after it was discovered that the list drawn up by the state had errors.