The U.S. Department of Justice said Monday it will go to federal court to block Florida's controversial effort to purge ineligible voters, ratcheting up a feud between the Obama administration and Gov. Rick Scott.
Word of the Department of Justice's planned lawsuit came on the same day that Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to gain access to a federal database in the ongoing effort to remove ineligible voters from statewide registration rolls.
In a five-page letter, however, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said Florida is not complying with federal laws aimed at "ensuring that state efforts to find and purge ineligible persons from voter registration lists do not endanger the ability of eligible U.S. citizens to register to vote and maintain their voter registration status."
"The federal statutes that the department has called to Florida's attention here are longstanding requirements of which the state is certainly aware," Perez wrote in the letter addressed to Detzner. "Because the state has indicated its unwillingness to comply with these requirements, I have authorized the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court."
The controversy stems from the state Division of Elections earlier this year sending a list of about 2,600 names of potentially illegal voters to local supervisors of elections. The division used what it has acknowledged was an imperfect list put together from a state Highway Safety database of people who had a certain degree of likelihood to be in the country illegally.
Detzner said the agency would have liked to have sent a more reliable list but couldn't get access to the federal Department of Homeland Security database. Local officials, he stressed, would ultimately be the ones to purge those voters who didn't respond to a letter questioning their status.
But in the last few days, the Division of Elections released a list of the names of 86 voters it says have been removed by local supervisors because they were non-citizens between April 11 and June 8. About half of them are listed as having voted.
Detzner filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in the District of Columbia to seek to force the federal agency to share citizenship information. Detzner said the state has been trying for nearly a year to gain access to DHS’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program (SAVE) database, which tracks citizenship and alien status.
"We can’t let the federal government delay our efforts to uphold the integrity of Florida elections any longer," Detzner said in a statement. "We’ve filed a lawsuit to ensure the law is carried out and we are able to meet our obligation to keep the voter rolls accurate and current."
But in the letter Monday, Perez said the state had not provided needed information to be able to use the SAVE database. The letter said that information involves what are known as alien registration numbers or certificate numbers found on immigration documents.
"In short, your claim that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security have worked in concert to deny Florida access to the SAVE program is simply wrong,'' Perez wrote. "By your own admission, Florida has been on notice for at least eight months that the SAVE program can verify naturalized and derived United States citizens only if Florida provided the appropriate numeric identifiers, and where necessary, the underlying documentation."
The Department of Justice lawsuit likely will center on two federal voting laws, the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Department officials argue that the National Voter Registration Act prevents states from systematically purging voters within 90 days of an election. With Florida hold primary elections Aug. 14, that 90-day period would have started May 16.
The Voting Rights Act, meanwhile, requires Florida to get approval from the U.S. attorney general or a federal court before making election changes in five counties that have a history of discrimination. Florida has not received such approval for the purge effort.
Despite the Department of Justice arguments, Scott has continued to push the effort --- and has received hundreds of e-mails in support from across the country.
"My job is to enforce the laws of Florida," Scott said on Fox News on Monday. "I'm the governor of Florida. That is what I got elected to do. I expect every other elected official to do their job and I expect they will."
Opponents of the purge have criticized it as too broad-brushed, and note that the 86 voters identified as ineligible would only be about one-third of one percent of all those on the list sent to supervisors.
It's also not clear how many of the 86 voters were among the 2,600 names that have been sent to local supervisors of elections for possible removal.
Local press reports have said some of the voters who have been removed in recent weeks were taken off voter rolls after they voluntarily came forward or were sought out by local officials not using the list sent to them by the state. For example, the Palm Beach Post reported that the one purged voter from Palm Beach County who was removed, Anabel Gomez, had to have come to the local supervisors and asked to be removed, because the local supervisor, Democrat Susan Bucher, never sent out any letters seeking to remove voters identified by the state.
It is a felony for non-citizens to register to vote, and at least some of those removed are likely to face charges if local prosecutors pursue them.
Of the 86 registered voters the state said local supervisors had removed in the last couple months, more than half – 44 of them – were in Lee County. No other county came close – Miami-Dade was next with 15 – suggesting the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office was much more aggressive during the period in culling the voter rolls of ineligible voters.
While the names on the list do suggest that many of those purged are Hispanic, many of them have names that suggest they're not, from Ardalan Heshmat in Alachua County to Lyudmyla Oleynikova, Stacey Lewis and Margaret White in Lee County.