TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. government wants to block Florida from resuming its purge of suspected noncitizens from the voter rolls, saying it would violate federal law.
The Justice Department filed papers in U.S. District Court in Tampa accusing the state of ignoring a requirement that it first obtain approval for such action because five Florida counties are subject to federal pre-clearance of changes in voting procedures: Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.
The removal of noncitizens in a presidential election year has mushroomed into a major controversy, with Democrats and left-leaning voter advocacy groups accusing Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of using the purge to suppress voter turnout in a state widely seen as a must-win for both presidential candidates.
At issue is whether Florida's on-again, off-again purge of noncitizens is subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The feds say it is. The state says it isn't.
The federal claim was filed Friday in a case brought by the ACLU of Florida and Lawyers Committee for Justice Under Law, seeking to halt more purging. The case is before U.S. District Judge James Whittemore.
Directing its argument at Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Justice Department attorney John Albert Russ IV argued: "The Secretary of State cannot now allege that the voting practice he initiated (and that the covered counties implemented at his direction) is completely abandoned, because the change has already affected voters in the covered counties. The implementation of these new practices and procedures without preclearance violates Section 5."
The feds say Florida never submitted the new "citizenship list maintenance practices" for approval, even though the state did submit an unrelated change for review in 2011: the use of Social Security numbers to verify that voters had died.
The state says it plans to resume the removal process, with more recent and reliable data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But state laws requiring notices and hearings for any suspected noncitizens make it unlikely that the program can move forward before the Nov. 6 general election.
It's the second time in recent weeks that the federal government has sought court intervention to stop the voter purge. Gov. Scott's administration prevailed June 28 when U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that a law preventing systematic removal of voters from the rolls less than 90 days before a federal election did not include noncitizens.
In Hillsborough, officials found a single case in which a noncitizen cast a vote in an election: Ecuadorian national Luis Ortega registered to vote with no party affiliation and cast a ballot in the 2006 general election.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.