MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department went to court on Tuesday seeking to force Florida election officials to abandon the state’s voter registration purge of non-citizens, saying it was being undertaken too close to the November presidential election.
In its lawsuit, filed only hours after issuing a stern letter to the state on Monday, the Justice Department sued Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner for alleged violation of the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits what it called “systematic removal” of voters from election lists within 90 days of an election for federal office.
Florida holds its primary election on August 14, meaning that the deadline for changing voter lists was on May 16.
The lawsuit also alleges that the database matching process the state is using relies on outdated and inaccurate data that has “erroneously identified numerous registered voters in Florida who are U.S. citizens and who potentially could be deprived of their right to vote.”
The lawsuit is the latest maneuvering in an escalating legal battle between Washington and Republican Governor Rick Scott over his push to purge Florida’s voter lists of non-citizens. As Secretary of State, Detzner is responsible for running Florida elections.
Supporters of the purge say it is aimed at protecting the integrity of the voter rolls. However, critics call it a part of long-running Republican efforts to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.
Florida, which President Barack Obama won by 2.8 percent in 2008, is expected to be a key swing state in the November 6 presidential election.
Scott defended the state’s effort in comments to CNN on Tuesday and argued he was only trying to uphold the law. “We did it on the basis of the data we had,” he said.
“We tried to do things the right way, but we’ve got to make sure that non-citizens do not dilute the vote of legitimate citizens. It’s illegal; it’s a crime,” he said.
Election officials initially said they were examining about 180,000 potential non-citizens. The state has identified about 2,700 registered voters who have been asked to produce proof of citizenship. According to the Miami Herald, 47 non-citizens who may have cast unlawful ballots have been found so far.
On Monday, Florida filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security seeking access to a national database, known as SAVE, detailing citizenship information to help verify whether non-citizens are illegally registered to vote in the state.
In the absence of access to SAVE Florida’s elections officials began comparing the voter rolls with a Florida Highway Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database, which also contains citizenship information.
But that information can result in false-positives as driver licenses held by legal residents are not automatically updated upon obtaining citizenship.
FEDERAL CONCERN ABOUT “INACCURACIES”
On Monday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote to Detzner in a strongly worded five-page letter in which he noted that the SAVE program was not suited to use in a voter registration purge because it does not include “a comprehensive and definitive listing of U.S. citizens and does not include, for example, those born in the United States,” he said.
He said Florida had failed to provide key information to cross-reference with the database including alien registration numbers or certificate numbers found on immigration-related documents.
“As a result the significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation,” Perez added.
According to the Miami Herald, Florida’s current list of potential non-citizen voters includes many people who are lawful citizens.
A disproportionate number of those identified are either Hispanic or black, the newspaper said.
Writing by David Adams; Additional reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by Lisa Shumaker