9 Investigates Florida's voter purge

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Less than a year after the state's controversial purge of voter rolls came to a grinding halt amid allegations of flawed data and pending lawsuits, Florida is preparing another purge of voter rolls.

Eyewitness News has obtained a copy of the letter sent by State Director of Elections Maria Matthews to all county elections supervisors. In the letter, Matthews explains that the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn parts of the Voting Rights Act has cleared the way for the state to resume its purge of voting rolls.

"What is the Division of Elections going to present to us as evidence that this person should be notified about the possibility of being removed?" said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles.

In June 2012, Cowles joined other county elections supervisors in halting the purge, telling the state that they believed the data was flawed.

"We put a stop sign up and said, 'We're not moving forward,'" said Cowles. "We don't trust the quality of the information we are receiving, I think supervisors are very aware of protecting the voters' right to vote and scrutinizing the data and information."

The state, in its letter to the counties, said it will continue to "develop and implement the process (data) relating to the Department of Homeland Security's SAVE" (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) system.

In late 2011, the Florida Department of State demanded access to the SAVE system. At the time, the DHS refused, citing concerns over how the state planned to use the information to remove voters, saying it had reservations about the legality of Florida's voter purge.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Florida Department of State is expected to have better access to the federal information.

"The hope is there were lessons learned by the state several years ago in how to do this correctly," said Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel.

Initially, in 2012, the state identified more than 180,000 possible illegal voters. That number was reduced twice. Ultimately, counties were sent lists with just a few dozen (198 total statewide) possible non-citizens before the process was stopped.

In Orange County, where almost 700,000 people are registered to vote, Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said only five total names were identified as non-U.S. citizens, although he said there was never any proof that any of the five people had ever attempted to cast a ballot.

State leaders see the purge as necessary to maintain the integrity of the system, saying in the letter to the counties that, "This is all part of our ongoing and continuing efforts to identify potentially ineligible registered voters regardless of the basis of ineligibility and to assist you with your duty."

"When you say that we are challenging your citizenship, you have to do it with number one, some dignity and number two, some accuracy," said Ertel.

Elections supervisors point out that they already purge their own rolls, removing people who have moved, died or may not be eligible to vote.

The cost for sending certified mail to check on the status of a voter is about $5 per voter, a cost born by each office.

However, additional names that need to be checked would be an additional cost that so far the state has not allocated funding for.

"It can't be something that causes voters overall to have doubt in the system," said Ertel.