TALLAHASSEE — When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act two weeks ago, it cleared the way for Gov. Rick Scott's administration to resume its controversial effort to remove potential noncitizens from voter rolls.
The high court on June 25 invalidated a formula used for decades by federal officials to approve changes to voting laws in states and counties to protect minorities from discrimination, a review known as preclearance. The federal scrutiny no longer applies to Hillsborough and four other Florida counties: Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.
A Hispanic advocacy group, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, sued last year on behalf of two Tampa voters, calling the state's list of suspected non-U.S. citizen voters unreliable with a potential to disenfranchise voters, especially Hispanics and African-Americans such as Murat Limage, 45, of Tampa. He received a letter from the county elections office that questioned his citizenship, even though he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, the suit alleges.
Some county election supervisors also questioned the accuracy of the state data. Removal efforts stalled a few weeks before the 2012 general election.
The thrust of the lawsuit was that the state began removing voters without first obtaining federal preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but that argument became pointless after the Supreme Court's decision.
Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, filed a notice in U.S. District Court in Tampa on Wednesday formally asking a judge to dismiss the suit, which both sides say is inevitable, so the purge can resume.
"Florida's five counties are no longer subject to preclearance," said Detzner's spokesman, Mark Ard. "We fully intend to continue our efforts to remove noncitizens from Florida's voter rolls and anticipate doing so with plenty of time to prepare for the next general election."
Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida, which sided with the plaintiffs, says the Supreme Court decision wiped out a layer of legal protection for minority voters.
"Our job has gotten harder, and it means the burden of defending the right to vote will fall more heavily on voting rights organizations," Simon said. "The main tool in the toolbox, Section 5, has been removed."
The Tampa case is only the latest of several examples of how the court ruling has immediately affected voting rights issues in several Southern states.
North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas are considering new voting laws, such as requiring photo IDs at the polls and cutting back on early voting days, the New York Times has reported.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.