MIAMI The Justice Department has asked Florida, a key electoral battleground state where a small number of ballots can swing a presidential race, to end a controversial voter purge effort.
In a two-page letter on Thursday, T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the Justice Department's Voting Section, said the effort appeared to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities.
In his letter, to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Herren also said the effort seemed to violate the 1993 National Voter Registration Act and its rules for maintaining "accurate and current" voter registration lists "in a uniform and non-discriminatory manner."
Supporters of Florida's voter scrub, being done under the state's Republican Governor Rick Scott, say it is aimed at clearing voter registration rolls of non-citizens. But critics call it part of longstanding Republican efforts to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.
Florida is one of the battleground states that could decide November's presidential election. Polls show President Barack Obama locked in an extremely tight race in the state with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In a separate but related development on Thursday, a federal court ruling struck down a Florida voter registration law that a judge found too onerous.
The judge declared the law "harsh and impractical" for requiring groups conducting voter registration drives to turn in registration forms within 48 hours of collecting them, and blocked enforcement of the deadline.
The written demand from the Justice Department, asking Florida to end its search for potentially ineligible voters, came hours after that court ruling
The purge effort since April has focused on trying to match the state voter registration database with driver's license records. In theory, this would help identify non-citizens by comparing voter rolls with a Department of Motor Vehicle database containing citizenship information.
Critics contend that such citizenship data is often out of date, however, since many people become citizens after they get their driver's licenses or state ID cards and register to vote.
So far, the state has identified about 2,700 voters as suspicious and sent them letters demanding they produce proof of citizenship to avoid being stricken from the voter rolls.
The Justice Department set a deadline of next Wednesday for Florida to respond to its letter. Chris Cate, a spokesman for the secretary of state, did not return a call seeking comment on the letter.
According to the Miami Herald, Florida's current list of potential non-citizen voters includes many people who are lawful citizens.
One voter singled out as suspicious turned out to be a Brooklyn-born World War Two hero with a Bronze Star from the Battle of the Bulge.
About 58 percent on the list were Hispanics - Florida's largest ethnic immigrant population - while whites and Republicans were least likely to face being purged from the rolls, the newspaper said.
Florida has what civil rights groups describe as a long history of voter roll tampering and manipulation. Most recently, in both 2000 and 2004, it tried purging convicted felons from the rolls using what were found to be inaccurate lists that kept ballots out of the hands of black voters who tend to vote Democratic.
Former President George W. Bush, a Republican, beat former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, by a wafer thin 537 votes in the Florida presidential race in 2000, the outcome of which was hotly disputed and ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Reporting By Tom Brown; Editing by Vicki Allen)