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Florida led an effort to remove noncitizens from the voter rolls last year that faced widespread criticism from county election officials. So Secretary of State Ken Detzner hit the road in October to make amends and unveil a revamped process for round two.
During his stop in deep-blue Broward County, Detzner -- an appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Scott -- faced a new heap of criticism. Voting rights activists peppered him with questions about the program Florida will use to purge noncitizen voters, called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE.
"Using the federal SAVE Program to conduct this ‘cleaning’ of the voter rolls is like taking a chihuahua on a hunting expedition -- it is an inappropriate tool for this application," said League of Women Voters President Deirdre Macnab in an Oct. 10 statement, the day after the meeting. "The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already warned that this database is not a foolproof means of verifying the voter rolls."
The League of Women Voters filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit currently before the U.S. District 11th circuit challenging the state Division of Elections’ use of the SAVE program.
Some of Macnab’s statement is a matter of opinion -- as fact-checkers we won’t weigh in on whether using SAVE is appropriate to search for noncitizens on voter rolls. But we decided to check if the Department of Homeland Security warned that SAVE "is not a foolproof means of verifying the voter rolls."
Florida’s controversial noncitizen voter purge
First, here’s a brief recap of the state’s effort to ferret out noncitizens on the voter rolls before the November 2012 presidential election: Florida started with a list of about 180,000 potential noncitizens and whittled it down to about 2,600 names that later turned into 198. The list was rife with errors -- it even flagged a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran. (The best data PolitiFact Florida could nail down from the state was that there were about 85 noncitizens actually removed as of Aug. 1, 2012.)
The first round was based on driver's license data, which was a poor method to identify current noncitizens, because it isn’t updated when someone later obtains citizenship. After a battle with federal officials, Florida gained access to the SAVE program in August 2012. But by then, many county election supervisors were fed up with the timing and process and it was scrapped.
Detzner hasn’t indicated when he will start the next round. But unlike last year, the state plans to review the data before sending an electronic file to supervisors with supporting documentation. This time, county election supervisors have the option of accessing SAVE themselves.
Implemented in 1987, SAVE wasn’t originally intended as a way to clean up voter rolls. SAVE is a Web service used by government agencies to verify immigration status in order to determine if someone is eligible for benefits including Medicaid, housing loans and unemployment. The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service administer SAVE. During the past couple of years, several states including Florida sought to use SAVE to verify voter rolls.
We asked the League of Women Voters for the source of their claim that the department warned that SAVE is "not a foolproof means of verifying the voter rolls."
The League pointed to a New York Times article about Detzner’s tour which stated, "In the 2012 agreement with Florida which allowed the state to use the information, the Department of Homeland Security said that the database was not a foolproof way of verifying citizenship."
That agreement between the department and the state Division of Elections doesn’t use the literal word "foolproof." But that's the essence of a Homeland Security fact sheet the state forwarded to us that explains some caveats about using SAVE to verify a voter’s eligibility:
"Because the SAVE program cannot confirm your citizenship status based upon information provided by the agency, you must be given an opportunity by the voter registration agency to provide the correct documentation or correct your records with USCIS and/or appeal the denial of your voter registration. Please note there are a number of reasons why the SAVE program may not be able to verify your citizenship, e.g., the SAVE program can only verify naturalized or derived citizens, to the extent that a derived citizen received an official determination on U.S. citizenship by USCIS. The inability of the SAVE program to verify your citizenship does not necessarily mean that you are not a citizen of the United States and are ineligible to vote."
SAVE is intended to show if someone is not a citizen but it does not contain a database of people who are U.S. citizens.
"SAVE relies on DHS records, which do not include a comprehensive and definitive listing of U.S. citizens..." stated a letter from the U.S. Justice Department to Detzner in July 2012.
For example, if someone has recently participated in a naturalization ceremony and that information isn’t yet loaded into SAVE, then it could be possible for an elections supervisor to obtain outdated information on a voter.
"The information in the database is only as good as the information inputted into the database," Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for USCIS, told PolitiFact Florida.
When Florida’s state elections director Maria Matthews talked about the SAVE database during a meeting in Sarasota County, she said "Is it foolproof? No, obviously it's not," according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
While state elections officials have said SAVE isn’t perfect, Detzner has said: "This is the best database we have to deal with."
Currently, there are four states with signed DHS agreements to access the SAVE Program for voter verification services: Florida, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina -- plus five counties in Arizona. Several additional states have pending applications including Virginia, Oregon and Georgia.
The League of Women Voters in Florida said, "The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already warned that this (SAVE) database is not a foolproof means of verifying the voter rolls."
That warning is essentially what the federal government conveyed in a document that explains SAVE may not be able to show citizenship status for all voters. The document didn't use the literal word "foolproof" but that is the message that the feds tried to communicate to the state. SAVE is intended to show if someone is not a U.S. citizen -- it is not a full database of people who are citizens. A state elections official said that SAVE isn't "foolproof," but the state argues that it is the best available resource.
We rate this claim True.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "The SAVE program: Verification, immigrants and public benefits," 2011
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, SAVE Benefit Category Filter Definitions, Accessed October 2013
U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Florida Department of State/Division of Elections, Memorandum of Agreement, Aug. 14, 2012
U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Fact sheet, July 23, 2012
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, Letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, June 11, 2012
Immigration Policy Center, "The systematic alien verification for entitlements (SAVE) program: a Fact sheet," Dec. 15, 2011
Federal Register, Rules and Regulations Department of Homeland Security, Aug. 23, 2010
Election Law @Moritz, Arcia vs. Detzner, Oct. 11, 2013
New York Times, "Florida Defends new effort to clean up voter rolls," Oct. 10, 2013
Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog, "Detzner: ‘I accept responsibility’ for non-citizen voter search woes," Oct. 9, 2013
Associated Press, "GOP search for voter fraud turns up little," Sept. 26, 2012
Associated Press, "Colo. voter citizenship checks yield few responses," June 19, 2013
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, "‘Credible’ work to purge rolls," Oct. 9, 2013
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), "Latest election controversy brewing over idea to ferret out non-citizen voters," Dec. 20, 2012
San Antonio Express-News, "Another solution in search of a problem," Aug. 3, 2012
PolitiFact, "Non-citizen purge makes a comeback in Florida," Sept. 12, 2013
Interview, Brittany Lesser, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections, Oct. 11, 2013
Interview, Elizabeth Pines, Board Director at League of Women Voters of Florida, Oct. 11, 2013
Interview, Baylor Johnson, spokesman ACLU of Florida, Oct. 11, 2013
Interview, Deirdre Macnab, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, Oct. 11, 2013
Interview, Cynthia Gordy, spokeswoman for the Advancement Project, Oct. 15, 2013
Interview, Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Oct. 15, 2013
Interview, Erik Opsal, spokesman Brennan Center for Justice, Oct. 15, 2013
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