TALLAHASSEE — A yearlong stalemate between Florida and Washington ended Saturday when the federal government gave the state access to a federal citizenship database, which the state will use to resume an election-year purge of noncitizen voters.
After repeatedly refusing, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed to open its database to the Department of State, which oversees Florida's voter registration system. The state will now cross-check the names of Florida voters against a federal citizenship database known as SAVE, or Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.
It wasn't clear why Homeland Security changed course, and the department had no comment Saturday. But the reversal comes after a federal judge in Florida refused to halt purge efforts.
The news is a victory for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has said the purge is necessary to guarantee fair elections. Democrats and voter advocacy groups have criticized Scott for the action, saying it is aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in an election year. Some groups filed lawsuits to block it.
Within days, Florida will resume the laborious process of purging noncitizens from the list of 11.2 million registered voters. A previous purge based on a flawed list of 2,700 drivers with voter cards who were suspected of being noncitizens ended last month when county election supervisors decided the list was inaccurate and unreliable.
"We are appreciative that the federal government is working with us," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner. "We believe this is a very big step in the right direction, and we hope our success paves the way for other states."
The Scott administration announced the settlement Saturday, describing it as "a new partnership" between the Republican governor and the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama. Scott has been critical of Obama, chiefly on the president's health care program, but also on the use of federal stimulus money to jump-start the economy.
Detzner announced the compromise in a letter to Florida's 67 county election supervisors.
"This access is a significant step towards ensuring ineligible voters cannot cast a ballot and dilute the ballot of eligible voters," Detzner wrote. "The next step in our new partnership with DHS is signing a Memorandum of Agreement, which is expected to be finalized very soon. Once the agreement is signed, our staff will be trained on how to access the SAVE database and, shortly afterward, begin verifying the legal status of potential noncitizens identified on the voter rolls. The first set of names we intend to review using the SAVE database will be the names provided to supervisors this past April. The results will be provided to you for additional actions in accordance with applicable laws."
The Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services sent Detzner a three-paragraph letter dated July 9, which said: "States will be able to access SAVE to verify the citizenship status of individuals who are registered to vote in that state."
Florida has one of the largest immigrant populations of any state, and more than half of the people on the first purge list had Hispanic surnames. Hispanics are considered a crucial voting bloc in the race between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. It is a third-degree felony for a noncitizen to vote in an election.
The action by the Department of Homeland Security closely follows a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, who rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to halt purge efforts on the basis of a 90-day "quiet period" in federal law before a federal election under the National Voter Registration Act. In Hinkle's courtroom, attorneys for the state signaled their plans to resume the purge if it gained access to the SAVE database.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, one of several groups that challenged the initial purge, predicted that groups would use the 90-day provision to thwart the state's new review of voters' eligibility.
"There is a reason why there is a federal law that prohibits this kind of purging 90 days before an election," the ACLU's Howard Simon said.
In his letter to election supervisors, Detzner said, "Based on the work we have completed during the past year, it is an unfortunate but now undeniable fact that Florida's voter rolls include a number of noncitizens. These ineligible registered voters must be removed to ensure the integrity of our elections. Under our new partnership with DHS, the Department of State is now better equipped to accurately identify these noncitizens through a careful and deliberate process not possible only days ago."
The state had filed a lawsuit against the federal government over its refusal to grant access to the citizenship database.
The federal government said it denied Florida elections officials access to the information because the state failed to provide necessary "unique identifiers" such as alien registration numbers or certification numbers on immigration documents. Cate, the spokesman for Detzner, said the state had the data, yet the feds still refused to grant access.
Cate said the purging of the rolls would begin as soon as possible. Under state law, only county election supervisors can revoke a voter's eligibility, following two separate 30-day notification periods, through a certified letter and a legal notice in a newspaper.
"As soon as we get access to that SAVE database, we are going to resume the process of sending names of potentially ineligible voters to supervisors of elections," Cate said. "We're very confident we'll be sending accurate data to the supervisors so they can conduct their own statutory removal process."
Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said, "The willingness of the Department of Homeland Security to provide the Secretary of State access to the SAVE database gives the state the opportunity to use accurate information to determine when a registered voter may not be eligible.
"The state should include confirming documentation any time they send a list of voters to supervisors of elections to ensure eligible voters are not removed."
Clark briefly purged two people from the voter list, based on information from the state, but restored their rights when both provided proof of citizenship.
The controversy is playing out in the midst of a close presidential election in the nation's biggest battleground state.
A federal government website calls SAVE a program "designed to aid benefit-granting agencies in determining an applicant's immigration status, thereby ensuring that only entitled applicants receive federal, state or local public benefits and licenses … an information service for benefit-granting agencies, institutions, licensing bureaus, and other governmental entities." The list can be checked against Florida's database to show who has become a citizen. But it's unclear how recently that federal database has been updated with names of immigrants who gained citizenship status.
The state had said it would still release a list of 182,000 motorists with voter cards whose citizenship was questioned, but that list, like the smaller version of 2,700, was based on outdated data compiled by the state highway safety agency. The state now calls the list of 182,000 voters "obsolete."
"The existing file of potentially ineligible voters, which was created months ago, is now outdated and will not be used as the basis for further action by the Department of State. It should be considered obsolete," Cate said.
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Reach Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.