TALLAHASSEE — A battle between Florida and the federal government over the state's push to identify and remove potentially ineligible voters is gearing back up.
Florida officials on Thursday warned that the state may take new legal action because it still has not gotten access to a federal immigration database.
But the move comes while the U.S. Department of Justice is pushing ahead with its own lawsuit to block the state's efforts and is demanding information from local election supervisors.
The state wants to use to the immigration database to determine the citizenship of roughly 2,600 registered voters that it previously suspected of being non-citizens.
Florida filed a lawsuit demanding access to the database, but last month the federal government relented and said it would grant access. But no final agreement has been reached, meaning that Florida will not be able to check the status of these voters prior to next week's primary election.
Gov. Rick Scott's press office put out a statement contending that “attorneys representing the state of Florida and its citizens are now preparing all appropriate legal options to ensure that an agreement is executed in a timely manner and prevent the irreparable harm that will result if non-citizens are not removed from the voting rolls.”
It was Scott who last year initiated a push to have Florida election officials look for non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls. That resulted in the state comparing driver's license information with voter registration data to come up with a list of more than 180,000 voters suspected of being ineligible to vote.
Then in April the state distributed to county election supervisors a smaller list of more than 2,600 names that state officials said had been reviewed further. The supervisors have final say over whether to remove a voter from the rolls.
Many county election officials, however, began raising questions about the accuracy of the list. More than 500 voters turned out to be citizens, while state records show that 86 noncitizens were removed from the voter rolls between April and June. Some of those removed had voted previously.
Most supervisors halted any further work on the state list amid although two counties — Collier and Lee — did not suspend work on the list and removed voters from the rolls.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued to stop the state's purge, but a federal judge ruled that there was nothing in federal law that prevent the state from identifying non-U.S. citizens even if it came right before the Aug. 14 election.
The lawsuit, however, is still alive and the court battle could last well beyond the November election.
In court filings the federal agency states it held settlement discussions with Florida but said it could not resolve the case without first getting more detailed information about those voters identified by the state.
The department also has subpoenaed information from nine county election officials: 3 from South Florida, two from the Tampa Bay area, as well those in Orange County, Bay County, Lee County and Collier County. Federal authorities want to know what information the state sent county election officials and what steps they took to reach out to the voters - and whether the voter was removed from the rolls because they failed to respond to a request by election officials.
A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman refused to answer questions on the decision to subpoena the county election officials.
The department also wants the initial list of 180,000 voters that the state first used to identify potentially ineligible voters. A federal judge ordered the state to hand over the information by next week.
The state released those names on Thursday, although state officials are now calling this list “obsolete.” The list includes names but it does not include race, party affiliation or even addresses.
“There's no action being taken on this list,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
The state is handing over the longer list to media organizations, voting rights groups as well as the Florida Democratic Party and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutsch. All had filed public records requests asking for the information.