A federal judge in Fort Lauderdale ruled Thursday that Florida's purge of potential noncitizens on the voter rolls can go on.
U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch said federal law does not prohibit the state from removing voters who were never lawfully eligible to register in the first place. Florida has identified 198 voters as potential noncitizens — among an estimated 11.4 million registered voters — and sent the names to independent county elections supervisors for their review.
A coalition of liberal-leaning voting-rights groups had asked the court to halt the purge, arguing in a hearing Monday that federal law prohibits purging the voter rolls 90 days before an election.
Attorneys for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner countered that the state could purge noncitizens at any time because they should have never been on the voter rolls.
"We're very pleased another federal court has ruled that Florida's efforts to remove noncitizens from the voter rolls are lawful and in the best interest of Florida voters," Detzner said in a statement Thursday. "Ensuring ineligible voters can't cast a ballot is a fundamental aspect of conducting fair elections."
Zloch's ruling follows one issued by a Tallahassee federal judge in June in a separate case filed by the U.S. Justice Department. That judge also opined that the 90-day purge prohibition in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act applies to people lawfully registered to vote, such as felons, and is silent as to noncitizens.
Zloch reached a similar conclusion. The 90-day purge prohibition, he ruled, applies to voters who have recently changed their address, but not to people who should not be on the rolls, such as minors or noncitizens.
"Certainly, the NVRA does not require the State to idle on the sidelines until a noncitizen violates the law before the State can act," he wrote. "And surely the NVRA does not require the State to wait until after the critical juncture — when the vote has been cast and the harm has been fully realized — to address what it views as nothing short of 'voter fraud.' "
Gov. Rick Scott's administration has cited fraud as the reason for moving forward with the purge, despite critics' concerns that lawful voters will be wrongly blocked from voting. Some of the people on the list of 198 potential noncitizens, based on a federal citizenship database, have told the Miami Herald they were citizens. Others said they are not.
About 58 percent of those on the list are minorities — 41 percent Hispanic and 17 percent black.
"What we're saying is that going after U.S. citizens with Hispanic and Haitian last names and potentially disenfranchising them is not the right way," said Jose Suarez, communications director for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, one of the groups that sued over the purge. "The state has to find a better way."
The labor union sued after the names of two of its members who are citizens came up in an earlier list of potential noncitizens. Four other groups joined the lawsuit; Zloch also ruled Thursday that two of those groups did not have the legal grounds to sue.
The state and the coalition had settled other parts of the lawsuit last month.
On the remaining portion of the lawsuit, the coalition had argued that the purge has had a chilling effect on voters and required the groups to divert resources toward identifying citizens wrongly identified on the state's list.
But Zloch said none of that outweighed Florida's interest in maintaining the integrity of the Nov. 6 election.
The state, he ruled, "has a compelling interest in ensuring that the voting rights of citizens are not diluted by the casting of votes by noncitizens."