The American Civil Liberties Union sued Florida on Friday to stop its controversial program designed to purge noncitizen voters from the rolls.
The ACLU says the program, which overwhelmingly targets minorities, needs approval from the federal government under the 1965 Voting Rights Act — a claim already made last week by the U.S. Department of Justice when it ordered Florida to cease the purge.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who is named as a defendant, has said Florida already received permission years ago to clean the voter rolls of noncitizens.
But the ACLU argues that the specific processes for the noncitizen-voter program — a new effort by the state — never received federal approval.
What's more, the program is too much of a burden on, and too much of a threat to, lawful voters, who could risk being removed from the rolls due to government error, the ACLU says.
"The state of Florida is violating federal law by subjecting citizens to this new and unnecessary requirement in order to exercise their right to vote," Julie Ebenstein, an ACLU Florida staff attorney, said in a written statement. "We are asking the court to protect the right to vote and stop this unlawful, targeted voting purge."
Detzner's office couldn't immediately respond to all aspects of the suit, which was filed late Friday afternoon. But it insisted the program is fair and needed.
"We have a year-round responsibility to ensure that the vote of a U.S. citizen isn't diminished by the vote of a non-citizen, and we take this responsibility very seriously," spokesman Chris Cate said.
"We are not aware of any eligible voters who have been removed from the voter rolls as a result of our efforts to ensure the integrity of Florida elections," he added. "However, multiple people in multiple counties are coming forward and admitting that they are not a citizen and should be removed from the rolls, some of whom have voted."
So far, about 40 noncitizens have been found on the voter rolls in eight of the state's 67 counties. Six of them may have voted, which is a felony. It's also a felony for a noncitizen to register to vote.
More than 500 people on a purge list the state has compiled have been determined to be actual U.S. citizens entitled to register and vote.
Among them: Murat Limage, a Hillsborough County resident who became a citizen on Nov. 1, 2010, and is a named plaintiff in the suit.
He was flagged as a potential noncitizen because the state compared its voter rolls with a motor-vehicle database, which only reflected his immigration status when he got a driver's license in November 2008 — two years before he became a citizen.
State officials say they want more updated records from the federal government, but the request has been refused.
On April 13, Limage received a letter notifying him that he had 30 days to prove he is a citizen to ensure that he remained a registered voter.
Limage provided his passport to the Hillsborough supervisor of elections and was told he was okay, but he received no written notification.
Limage "remains concerned that he will not be permitted to vote in the upcoming election," the suit says. Another voter who faces similar circumstances, Pamela Gomez, is also a named plaintiff, along with a Hispanic-voter advocacy group, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, which claims the voter purge is interfering with their work, which is largely in Hillsborough County.
The suit concerns itself with Hillsborough because it is one of five Florida counties where changes in elections procedures require federal approval. The other counties are Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.
Though the ACLU wants the state to stop its program in the entire state, a judge could order it to halt in just those five counties. They account for just 112 of the nearly 2,700 potential noncitizens identified by the state.
More than 1,600 people on the list are in Miami-Dade, where about 500 citizens have been confirmed along with 14 noncitizens on the rolls.
Nearly all elections supervisors have stopped implementing the removal program due to the complaints from the Justice Department and the fact that the overwhelming number of those on the 2,700-person potential-noncitizens list have proven to be citizens.
The county supervisors — who have final say over voter purges — are independent and can't be forced by the state to conduct the program.
As a result of halting the program, supervisors say, those potential noncitizens who haven't responded will still remain on the rolls. But those who respond and admit they're noncitizens will be removed from the rolls.
Because the supervisors essentially balked at the state demands, it's unlikely the state will send more names to the counties. The state's initial list comprised 180,000 names of potential noncitizens.
Last week the Justice Department told the state to stop the program, not just because of the Voting Rights Act. It also cited a law commonly called "motor voter," which bans purges within 90 days of a federal election, which this year fell on May 16.
The state says that purge ban doesn't apply to noncitizens and has demanded the Justice Department to answer questions about the voter-purge program by Monday.