(Reuters) - Florida, a key electoral battleground where the 2000 presidential election was decided by a few hundred ballots, will decide in the coming days whether to heed a Justice Department warning to stop its campaign to purge ineligible voters, a state spokesman said on Saturday.
The warning issued this week by the head of the Justice Department’s voting section said the effort appeared to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities. It demanded a response by Wednesday.
A spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said the state must make certain that only eligible voters cast ballots.
“We have a year-round obligation to ensure the integrity of Florida’s elections. We will be responding to (the Justice Department’s) concerns next week,” Chris Cate said in an email message.
Cate said in a subsequent telephone call that the state was still formulating its response.
Polls show Florida will be closely contested between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the outcome could swing the November 6 election.
A mere 537 Florida votes decided the 2000 election in favor of Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore, amid charges from both sides that some people were unable to vote, some votes were uncounted, or were counted incorrectly.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided the contest in a ruling that halted the recount process.
Supporters of Florida’s voter scrub, conducted by the administration of 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.
In its letter to Detzner on Thursday, the Justice Department 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.”
The purge effort, begun in April, compares lists of registered voters with driver’s license records that contain information on citizenship. Critics contend the information can be out of date as many people become citizens after they get their driver’s licenses or state IDs.
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.
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. Whites and Republicans were least likely to face being purged from the rolls, the newspaper said.
Civil rights groups say Florida has a long history of voter roll tampering and manipulation. Most recently, in 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.
(Reporting By Andrew Stern and Tom Brown; Editing by Xavier Briand)
This story has been corrected following an official correction with Florida spokesman saying state still formulating response