The administration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott is headed to a legal showdown with two different federal agencies over a contentious voter purge.
Florida filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Washington D.C., demanding that the state be given the right to check the names of its registered voters against an immigration database maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The lawsuit came the same day that the U.S. Department of Justice announced its plan to ask a federal court to block the state from pushing ahead with removing potential non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls. Authorities contend that the state’s effort violates federal voting laws.
“Please immediately cease this unlawful conduct,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
But Scott himself went on national television to defend the purge and the need to sue the federal government.
“I have a job to do to defend the right of legitimate voters,” Scott told Neil Cavuto of Fox News. “We want to have fair honest elections in our state and so we have been put in the position we have to sue the federal government to get this information.”
This latest action follows a lawsuit filed last week against the purge by a Hispanic civic organization and two naturalized citizens that was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
The litigation is unlikely to have much a practical effect since nearly every county supervisor in Florida had already suspended efforts to remove any of the potential non-U.S. citizens identified by the state.
But the legal skirmish is already becoming a flashpoint between Republicans and Democrats in this crucial swing state. Scott himself blasted the federal government over the voter purge during a tea party event held over the weekend.
It was Scott who last year urged state elections officials to start looking for non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls. An initial comparison of driver’s license records with voter registration records turned up as many as 182,000 registered voters who may not be U.S. citizens.
But state officials did not release that list and instead sought access to a federal immigration database to verify the matches. That request so far has been turned down by Homeland Security.
Earlier this year, state officials sent local election officials a much smaller list of more than 2,600 voters and asked them to check the names. Voters who did not respond to supervisors could ultimately be removed from the rolls.
Supervisors, however, have questioned the accuracy of the list since hundreds on it have turned out to be citizens.
State records show 86 non-citizens have been removed from the voter rolls since April 11, and that more than half of them had voted in previous elections. Of the voters removed, more than half — 44 of them — were in Lee County.
No other county came close — Miami-Dade was next with 15 — suggesting that the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office was much more aggressive during the period in culling the voter rolls of ineligible voters.
While the names on the list do suggest that many of those purged are Hispanic, many of them have names that suggest they’re not, from Ardalan Heshmat in Alachua County to Lyudmyla Oleynkova, Stacey Lewis and Margaret White in Lee County.
Some of the names removed in recent weeks were discovered by supervisors independently and did not come from the list distributed by the state.
It is a felony for non-citzens to register to vote, and at least some of those removed are likely to face charges if local prosecutors pursue them.
Florida’s lawsuit contends that federal law requires Homeland Security to grant the state access to an immigration database which does not track native U.S. citizens but only those people who visit or immigrate to the country. Homeland Security officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit.
But Justice officials said it takes more than a name or birthdate to prove a match in the federal immigration database and that Florida has already conceded doesn’t have the right data. Perez wrote that the “significant problems you are encountering...are of your own creation.”
Perez added said that while federal authorities do not want non-U.S. citizens to vote “states cannot have unfettered authority” to remove voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. Florida’s primary is Aug. 14.
“Where the registration status of eligible citizens is questioned close to an election, it creates significant confusion for both voters and election officials that cannot easily be resolved in the immediate pre-election period, when there is insufficient time to identify errors or remedy incorrect removals,” wrote Perez.
The federal government also contends the voter purge violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because the procedures used to identify potentially ineligible voters have not been reviewed by the Justice Department.
Florida must secure approval for changes in voting procedures because five counties, including Collier, are still covered by the law because of a past history of discrimination.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.