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Voter Purge Over Citizen Status Sours Floridians on Republicans

Florida residents erroneously subjected to a Republican-led effort to purge noncitizens from voter rolls said they’re furious, and several promised to vote against the party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, as a result.

In interviews with 35 of the 2,625 people the state moved to prevent from voting, all but two said they’re U.S. citizens, with about a third identifying themselves as Republicans and another third as Democrats. They included a Cuba-born physician, a U.S. Army soldier who served in Afghanistan, an entomologist originally from Canada and a taxi driver from Haiti.

The attempt to remove potential noncitizens, led by Republican Governor Rick Scott, may hurt his party in the November presidential election by alienating voters being courted heavily by Romney and President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Three of the past five presidential elections in Florida have been decided by less than 3 percentage points. The state has the most electoral votes of those viewed as competitive by both campaigns.

Among those targeted was Rolando Baster, 60, of Miami, an ear, nose and throat doctor originally from Cuba who said he has been a U.S. citizen for a decade and has always supported Republican candidates. This year, he said, he plans to vote for Obama because of the “trouble” he was caused by Scott’s administration.

Romney’s Belief

“If this is what Rick Scott believes, and this is what the Republican Party believes, then maybe this is what Mitt Romney believes, too,” said Baster, who runs an assisted-living facility.

Scott has said he is seeking to battle voter fraud, and some of those interviewed applauded the effort. Groups opposing Scott questioned the data used by the state.

After a legal complaint by civil rights groups and others, Florida last month said those erroneously removed would be reinstated, and U.S. citizens threatened with removal would be notified that they’ll remain on the rolls.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida State Department, declined to say how many voters have been wrongly removed.

On Sept. 26, the state said it had identified only 198 residents who may be illegally registered, down from the original 2,625. The state released names of those on the lists in response to a public-records request.

‘Cockroach’ Feeling

Of the 35 interviewed, four said that as a result of being targeted, they would vote for Obama or were likely to. Twenty said they were upset by the state’s questioning.

“This is incredibly untimely for Republicans,” said Paul George, a professor who teaches Cuban-American history and politics at Miami-Dade College in Miami. “This makes things even more daunting for Romney, because he’s been trying to woo the Hispanic vote. Every vote counts in Florida.”

Alejandra Ares, 50, who was born in Venezuela and lives near Miami, said she “felt like a cockroach” after receiving a letter questioning whether she was illegally registered to vote.

Ares, a real-estate agent, and others interviewed said they grew concerned their citizenship was invalid or that their identity was stolen.

Stephane Salnave, a soldier who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he felt “disrespected.” The Haiti native is registered as a Democrat and said he votes for candidates from both parties.

Leaning Toward Obama

Salnave, 30, said he is leaning toward Obama, partly because of a letter he received from county election officials saying he could lose his voting rights unless he proved he is an American citizen.

“There should be an apology for me and everyone else this has happened to,” Salnave said.

Murat Limage, 44, who was born in Haiti and became a U.S. citizen in 2010, said he hadn’t been planning to vote this year -- until receiving a letter from election officials questioning his citizenship.

“This makes me change my mind,” said Limage, a Tampa taxi driver who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the state over the purge. “I blame the Republican Party, and I want my vote to count for Obama.”

Anthony Verdugo, director of the Christian Family Coalition, a Miami-based group that distributes voter guides at South Florida churches and tends to support Republican candidates, said the purge hurts the party.

Army Entomologist

“It wasn’t a very smart move at all,” Verdugo said. “These missteps make it look like Republicans don’t care about the community.”

Voters including Rob Lowen, a Canada-born entomologist in the U.S. Army, blamed Scott, who faces re-election in 2014.

“I remember how people treat me,” said Lowen, 50, who is registered to vote in Gainesville. “I usually judge a governor by how little I hear from him.”

Thirteen voters interviewed said they weren’t bothered by the questioning or having to show proof of citizenship.

“I have to show my ID for everything else. Why not this?” said Zoe Alvarez, a 57-year-old Cuba native living in Miami who said she has been a U.S. citizen for more than four decades. She described Scott as “wonderful” and said she backs efforts to prevent noncitizens from voting.

‘Right Thing’

Scott, 59, said the program was worthwhile.

“Oh gosh, we did exactly the right thing,” Scott said Sept. 18 during a question-and-answer session with reporters in his Tallahassee office. “We believe in honest, fair elections.”

While Republicans are looking for illegally registered residents, they’re also confronting questions about their own program to sign up voters. After potentially fraudulent voter applications tied to the party were found in Florida, the Republican National Committee last week discontinued registration work ahead of a deadline in the state and four others viewed as competitive by both parties.

Florida officials temporarily halted the search for nonresidents when county elections supervisors complained about using driver’s license data to determine citizenship. Florida requires residents to show proof of citizenship from their countries before getting a license or other state ID. That information, the election officials said, isn’t regularly updated.

The hunt resumed after the state received access to immigration data from the U.S Homeland Security Department in July, 10 months after requesting it.

Not Voting

Using the federal data, the state’s initial roster was pared back.

The state’s push led some U.S. citizens to decide not to go to the polls this year. Sylvia Lepine, 56, who lives near Orlando, said she doesn’t plan to vote after receiving her letter saying she needed to prove citizenship.

“I lost my papers about four years ago,” said Lepine, a Canadian native who owns a powder-coating business. “They say I can’t vote, so I’m not going to.”

A Democrat, Lepine voted in Florida in every presidential election since 1992, according to state records.

Noncitizens were found on the rolls. In Miami-Dade, which accounted for 1,599 of the 2,625 people on the list, 15 told county officials they weren’t citizens.

Illegal Voting

Of the 198 voters on the latest list, 38 cast ballots in previous elections, according to state records.

Among them is Anita Caragan, 72, who was born in the Philippines and lives in Panama City Beach in the state’s Panhandle region. Caragan said she has held a green card, giving her permanent residency in the U.S., since 1970. Caragan has voted in 12 elections, state records show.

It’s illegal for those holding green cards to vote in federal elections. They can be deported from the U.S., according to the Homeland Security Department.

She said she was issued a voter registration card when she renewed a driver’s license, and thought it was legal to vote as a result.

“I’ve been voting for many, many years,” she said. “So what’s the problem?”

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