Florida vows to defy Justice Department, continue with voter purge

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner says he will push officials in the likely swing state to check voter rolls against a list of suspected illegal immigrants. The Justice Department says the purge may be illegal.

Oscar Sosa/AP/File
Voters mark their ballots during Florida's primary elections in this September 2002 file photo, at St. Paul American Methodist Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla.

State officials in Florida insisted Friday they would resume a purge of non-citizens from voter polls over the objections of the US Department of Justice’s Voting Rights Division, the latest move in a tense, election-year political chess match between Tallahassee and the Obama administration.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott recently requested county voting resistrars to purge the voter rolls to prevent illegal immigrants from lining up to vote in the presidential election in November. The move is one of several – including voter ID laws – championed by Republican governors in the South as targeting voter fraud, but which are viewed by the Justice Department as unfairly targeting minority voters.

The purge is based on a list of 2,700 names that were flagged as questionable by the Election Division in Tallahassee, which counts just over 11.3 million registered voters in the state. Before heeding DOJ’s order to stop the purge last week, county election officials had found that 500 of the people on the list were legal voters while 40 were identified as noncitizens. Four of those may have voted in past elections, making them potentially guilty of voter fraud, a felony.

Despite the DOJ objections, as well as concerns voiced by election officials in Florida’s 67 counties, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner insisted Friday that he’ll keep pushing for the purge. The fight over the purge is taking place in a tightly contested swing state that may, in the end, determine whether President Obama will remain in office for another four years.

“This is a tactical decision and, in a way, it makes sense: You know that Florida is going to be highly competitive, so you make what is actually a very clever argument: Who’s going to say, ‘No, no, we should keep noncitizens on the voting rolls’?” says Efren Perez, a political scientist who specializes in Latino voter issues at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.

“But while it’s intuitively plausible that noncitizens might get on the voter rolls,” he says, “it’s not clear how big or a problem it really is, empirically speaking, which means you’re also giving the opposition an argument to say, ‘This is precisely why minorities vote for Democrats.’”

Southern states like Georgia, Texas and Florida, which are are all, at least in part, subject to DOJ review of new voting laws because of past disenfranchisement, have been at loggerheads over election integrity with Mr. Obama, whose support among the critical minority voting bloc is around 80 percent.

"There is inherently a lot of politics in this," Ron Brownstein, an editor at the nonpartisan National Journal, told CNN on Friday. "You have a series of Republican governors, Republican state legislators producing tough new laws making it tough to register voters and scrub the voter rolls. [A]lmost all of these initiatives would have a disproportionate effect on minority voters."

But Mr. Detzner said on the same CNN program that the initiative has popular support. “I hear from people every day that call my office and explain that they do not want their vote eliminated by a non-citizen who is registered to vote,” he said.

In its letter to the state, the Department of Justice said Florida may be in violation of several laws, including a lack of so-called precleareance from the Voting Rights Division, which must okay any changes to election rules for half a dozen Florida counties under the 1964 Voting Rights Act. The DOJ also pointed out that Florida law prevents the state from removing voter names within 90 days of an election, in this case an August primary.

Detzner argued on CNN Friday that the state currently removes names within that 90-day period if people are found to be felons, mentally incompent or dead. It doesn’t seem logical, Detzner said, that noncitizens “would have more rights than someone who is a felon.”

County election officials in Florida reportedly are refusing to resume the purge, with some saying it is illegal, but Detzner says he wants to work with them to find a way to restart the process. One way would be for the state to get access to a Department of Homeland Security citizenship and immigration database that could clear up confusion about the legal status of many of the names on the Florida list. So far, DHS has refused to share that data with Florida.

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