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Lawsuit claims voter purge illegally targets minorities

TALLAHASSEE — A string of voter advocacy groups sued Florida on Tuesday, claiming the state's recent noncitizen voter purge unfairly discriminates against minority voters.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, adds to a growing volume of litigation over the state's decision to target more than 2,600 registered voters whose citizenship was questioned in a driver's license database.

The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state to block the so-called purge, claiming it violates a federal law that outlaws the systematic removal of voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. A hearing has been set for June 27. Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, has sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the federal agency of unlawfully denying Florida access to a citizenship database.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights also have sued to block removal efforts in five counties under federal oversight in voting matters, including Hillsborough and Monroe.

The latest lawsuit, filed on behalf of two Hispanic women in Miami-Dade County, charges that the purge violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any action that denies or abridges the voting rights of racial or ethnic minorities. It also echoes the federal government's argument that the National Voter Registration Act prohibits any systematic removal of ineligible voters less than 90 days from the date of a federal election, which in Florida is Aug. 14.

The complaint says that while 14 percent of voters in Florida are Hispanic, 61 percent of the names on the state list are of Hispanics.

"What we know so far is this: It's devastating for the Latino and black communities in Florida," said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel to Latino Justice, a New York group that joined in the lawsuit. "You have a clear racial impact."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, Florida New Majority and SEIU United, a labor union representing health care workers.

The lawsuit cites Miami-Dade's list of suspected noncitizens as an illustration of the purge's problems: of the 1,572 people who were sent letters seeking to confirm their citizenship, 562 responded, of which 14, or 2.5 percent, admitted ineligibility.

Most Florida counties have suspended the removal, as county election supervisors question the list's reliability.

Scott's chief elections official, Ken Detzner, the defendant in the latest lawsuit, said the state is not aware of anyone who has been erroneously removed from the rolls.

"Making sure an ineligible voter can't neutralize the vote of an eligible voter is a key part of upholding the integrity of Florida elections," said Detzner's spokesman, Chris Cate. "Race and party don't play any role in the process whatsoever."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Lawsuit claims voter purge illegally targets minorities 06/19/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 10:51pm]
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