Voter purge to continue after feds, state finalize agreement

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TALLAHASSEE - Florida's voter purge will move ahead after the federal government finalized an agreement to allow the state to access records that could detect non-citizens on the voting rolls, Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced Thursday.

Detzner said the memorandum of agreement with the Department of Homeland Security would allow the state to continue with its scrubbing of the rolls, this time using the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement Programs, or SAVE, database.

That would replace a state system, built on driver's licenses and voter registration records, that Detzner's department stopped relying on after critics said it was riddled with inaccuracies.

"We have an obligation to ensure Florida's voter rolls are accurate, and accessing the SAVE database greatly improves our ability to accomplish that goal, as well as ensure the overall integrity of our elections," Detzner said in a statement issued by his office.

The decision was a blow to opponents of the purge, who have pushed in a variety of lawsuits to stop further efforts to remove voters from the rolls. The Department of State had already stopped the program by the time the first lawsuit was heard, saying that the initial sample of 2,600 names had proven that ineligible voters had cast ballots even though local elections supervisors said many of the voters whose names were provided to them were, in fact, eligible.

Those 2,600 names, submitted in April, will be the first ones checked against the SAVE database, Detzner said.

A federal court in June rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to bar the state from taking any more steps toward carrying out its purge program but said concerns that eligible voters could be removed from the list were significant.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the state could pursue the removal of non-citizens within 90 days of a federal election, paving the way for some version of the scrubbing to continue, especially if the state gained access to SAVE and could prove the effort isn't discriminatory.

Detzner had already made it clear during a press conference Tuesday, held to coincide with the state's primary elections, that his department intended to push forward with the purge once it got access to SAVE.

One of the organizations suing in federal court issued a statement Wednesday cautioning Detzner to proceed carefully. Critics contend that, even with the more accurate SAVE database, there is a chance that legitimate voters could be mistakenly removed from the rolls.

"Florida has not released the process it will undertake to review the voter rolls and use the SAVE program to verify citizenship," said Ben Hovland, senior counsel for the Fair Elections Legal Network. "What we do know is that Florida has a history of inaccurate list matching efforts that have jeopardized thousands of Floridians' right to vote. With the November election quickly approaching, the Florida Secretary of State's office should avoid any action that will inappropriately remove eligible citizens from the voting rolls."

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