Florida renews voter registration purge, uses U.S. immigration database

TALLAHASSEE, Florida Fri Aug 17, 2012 2:13pm EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida election officials on Friday began culling through the names of potentially ineligible voters after finalizing an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use the federal immigration database in the key swing state.

Florida election officials have been aggressively seeking to scan voter rolls for non-citizens and other ineligible voters.

Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott has defended the move in the face of criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups who say it is unnecessary and aimed at assuaging unfounded Republican fears that many illegal aliens are on voting rolls.

Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida Department of State, said state election officials were beginning the process after being trained to access the Systematic Verification for Entitlement Program (SAVE) database, which tracks immigration status.

"We are already starting the process of identifying names through the system," Cate told Reuters on Friday.

The agreement to use the SAVE system was announced late on Thursday and came more than a month after state election officials agreed in principle to use the database.

"We have an obligation to ensure Florida's voter rolls are accurate and accessing the SAVE database greatly improves our ability to accomplish that goal, as well as ensure the overall integrity of our elections," Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement.

State election officials will begin with an initial batch of 2,600 names that have been flagged by an earlier sweep of motor vehicle records that proved to be inaccurate.

The names of any potentially ineligible voters will be forwarded to local elections officials for verification, said Case, who added that information on attempts to reach those on the list would be included.

Florida and U.S. officials have been battling over voter rolls for months.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit claiming the purges violated federal voter access laws. A federal judge denied a request to bar the state from going forward, but local election officials had already stopped searching.

Separately, the Department of Justice has blocked five counties in Florida from adopting new state rules that reduce the number of early voting days, arguing that the changes discriminate against minorities.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Justice's move, ruling in an unsigned opinion that Florida had failed to prove its law didn't discriminate.

(Editing by David Adams and Paul Simao)

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