TALLAHASSEE — Florida's quest to identify and remove non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls was started at the direct urging of Gov. Rick Scott, the state's former top elections official said.
Ex-Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who resigned this year, told The Associated Press that Scott asked him whether or not non-U.S. citizens were registered and if those people were voting. Browning explained to the governor during a face-to-face meeting last year that people who register and falsely claim they are citizens can be charged with a crime.
"He says to me — well, people lie," Browning recalled this week. "Yes, people do. But we have always had to err on the side of the voter."
Browning said the conversation prompted state election officials to begin working to identify non-U.S. citizens. The state's initial list — compiled by comparing driver's licenses with voter registration data — showed that as many as 182,000 registered voters were eligible to be in the country but ineligible to vote.
But Browning said he decided against telling local election supervisors right away because he wanted to make sure the information was accurate in order to avoid a "firestorm of press" and criticism. Florida then spent months trying to get access to a federal database that tracks non-U.S. citizens in the country, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not allow it.
"We were not confident enough about the information for this secretary to hang his hat on it," said Browning, who resigned after the Jan. 31 presidential preference primary.
Browning said media reports earlier this year that raised questions whether non-U.S. citizens were on the rolls required the state to keep pushing ahead with the effort.
In the last few weeks, the state sent a list to county election supervisors of more than 2,600 people who have been identified as non-U.S. citizens. Supervisors have responded warily to the list and have pointed out that it has inaccuracies.
Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel went so far on Monday to put out on Twitter a picture of him holding a U.S. passport that belonged to one of the voters identified on the list.
Last week state officials announced that the Florida agency that handles driver's licenses and does have access to the federal database would double-check the names on the state list.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott, did not have direct knowledge of the conversation between Browning and Scott. But he said the governor wants to make sure only eligible voters cast ballots.
"It's the governor's job to make sure the voter rolls are accurate, and I don't know anyone who believes non-U.S. citizens should be allowed to vote," Burgess 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 U.S. citizens and live in the state. Florida also does not allow people to vote if they are convicted felons and have not had their civil rights restored.
While Browning said he wanted to double-check the information, he also said that local supervisors should be working with the state to make sure there aren't ineligible voters on the rolls.
"The supervisors — all 67 of them — get ultimate control of who comes on and who comes off," said Browning, the former elections supervisor for Pasco County. "If there are non-U.S. citizens on their rolls, then why aren't they doing something about getting the non U.S. citizens off?"
Ertel, a Republican, said he agrees ineligible voters should be removed but questioned the accuracy of the list. He also said it was given to supervisors already in a serious time crunch because redistricting was forcing them to change precincts and district lines.
"If the list is so easily debunked, it should have been better vetted," Ertel said.
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