MIAMI Florida on Wednesday disputed a Justice Department claim that its controversial voter purge efforts may be illegal and said it was the federal government that appeared to have run afoul of the law.
"The Florida Department of State has a solemn obligation to ensure the integrity of elections in this state," said Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner in a letter to the Justice Department.
"Permitting ineligible, non-citizen voters to cast ballots undermines that mission and erodes the justified faith the electorate has in the fairness and reliability of the electoral process," he added.
Supporters of Florida's voter purge, which has been vigorously pursued under Republican Governor Rick Scott, say it is aimed at clearing voter rolls of non-citizens. But critics call it part of long-running Republican effort to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.
Florida is expected to be a key state in the November 6 presidential election.
Detzner said Florida's actions were consistent with federal voting laws and his pointed comments indicated that Florida had no immediate intention of giving up its voter scrub effort.
T. Christian Herren, who heads the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, had warned Detzner in a separate letter last week that an ongoing search for and purging of non-eligible voters in Florida appeared to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects minorities.
Detzner's response positioned Florida for a standoff with the Justice Department over voting rights in the run-up to the closely disputed U.S. presidential election.
"The department today received a response to its May 31, 2012, letter to the Florida Secretary of State regarding reported voter list maintenance," a Justice Department official said.
"We are currently reviewing the letter," added the official, who declined further comment.
"DOJ's reading of the NRVA (Voting Rights Act) would grant greater protection against removal from the voter rolls to non-citizens - who were never eligible to vote - than to other categories of registered voters," Detzner said.
Detzner said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was supposed to provide Florida access to a database known as SAVE, with detailed citizenship information to help ensure the integrity of its voter registration rolls, but the government agency had repeatedly refused to so do.
"By denying Florida access to the SAVE database, DHS appears to have violated federal law," he said.
His letter stopped short of saying openly whether Florida would persist in its voter scrub effort, which has focused on trying to match the state voter registration database with drivers' license records. But the state has identified about 2,700 registered voters as "suspicious" so far, and sent them letters demanding that they produce proof of citizenship to avoid being stricken from lists of eligible voters.
In a separate but related development last week, 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.
In his letter, Detzner asked Herren to answer several questions by next Monday to determine the future course of the state's voter clean-up efforts.
The questions included one about whether the Justice Department agreed that Homeland Security has "a legal obligation to provide Florida access to the SAVE database."
He also asked "what steps does the DOJ believe Florida may take to identify and remove non-citizens from its voter rolls between today's date and the date of the November 6 general election."
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.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)