In an election-year turnaround, Gov. Rick Scott's administration is dropping a problematic voter purge aimed at keeping non-U.S. citizens from casting ballots.
In the fall, Secretary of State Ken Detzner held five forums with supervisors of elections and the public seeking input on what he called "Project Integrity," a revamped process in which voter registration records were to be matched with a federal database to ensure that prospective voters were eligible to participate in elections.
But on Thursday, Detzner sent supervisors a memo saying he is scrapping the scrub.
Detzner blamed changes to the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Eligibility, or SAVE, database, for his decision.
"In early February, we received notice that the Department of Homeland Security?s SAVE program would be undergoing a multi-phase redesign. On February 23, Phase One was officially launched and included, at a minimum, a revised screen design, new fields and features," Detzner wrote to the supervisors.
"These changes will enhance and improve the credibility and reliability of the potential ineligible matches, but DHS anticipates Phase Two will not be complete until 2015. For these reasons, with your input, I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the Federal SAVE Program Phase Two is completed,? he wrote in a memo issued after a conference call with the supervisors.
Many supervisors --- the only officials who have the authority to remove voters from the rolls --- were wary of the new process despite assurances from Detzner that it would include documentation that targeted voters who were ineligible to vote.
"I politely informed the secretary that Florida could not afford to repeat what happened in 2012," Pasco County elections supervisor Brian Corley told The News Service of Florida after Thursday's call with Detzner. "If there were concerns about it being done right and the timing of it, then I was all for delaying for that reason."
The 2012 voter purge, which Corley called "an embarrassment," was the brainchild of Scott, who is running for re-election this fall.
But supervisors abandoned the 2012 effort after discovering that the lists of voters flagged by Detzner's office as potential non-citizens were riddled with errors.
Of the 2,600 targeted voters, 85 were found to be ineligible to vote and dropped from the rolls. After the U.S. Department of Justice sued Scott over the purge, Scott took the Obama administration to court to get access to the database. A deal between the state and the Department of Homeland Security was struck last year.
Critics of the purge accused Scott of trying to prevent minorities in Florida --- a critical swing state --- from voting in the 2012 presidential election because many of the voters on the list had Hispanic-sounding last names. Hispanics are considered a crucial voting bloc in the upcoming governor's race.
Detzner's announcement comes as Scott's campaign is embroiled in a drama related to former finance chairman Mike Fernandez's resignation from the team. Fernandez complained, in part, about campaign officials ignoring his advice about how to deal with Hispanics.
Fernandez, a billionaire who raised more than $30 million for the governor's re-election effort, quit the team last week. In a series of internal e-mails leaked to The Miami Herald and Politico, Fernandez, who is Cuban, criticized the campaign for being insensitive to Hispanics. The Herald reported that Fernandez complained about two campaign aides making jokes in a Hispanic accent while en route to a Mexican restaurant.
Scott's campaign manager Melissa Sellers said that Fernandez was not in the van when the reported comments were made.
"If something was said in an accent, no one remembers what it was. We are a diverse organization and we do not tolerate inappropriate comments," Sellers said in an e-mail.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant accused Scott's team of an attempt at "damage control" with the purge.
?Now, embroiled in a scandal involving racist jokes targeting Hispanics, the governor suddenly has made (an) about-face and suspends the latest attempt to kick voters off of the voting rolls --- attempts that have overwhelmingly targeted Hispanics in the past. It is now clear to all that the original reasons given for the voter purge (were) mere pretexts to intimidate voters Rick Scott would frankly rather not vote," Tant said in a statement. "While this move is clearly an act of damage-control from a campaign in chaos, this represents a major victory for the people of Florida who have suffered so many voter suppression efforts under the Rick Scott administration."