Justice Dept. Sues to End Florida Voter-Roll Purge

June 12, 2012
by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

Voters cast ballots in Hyannis, Mass. in 2004. (AP Photo/Julia Cumes)

The Justice Department is suing Florida’s secretary of state to stop a voter purge that it says is against the law.

Florida’s own county election officials — a cadre of Republicans and Democrats — have already suspended the purge. Several officials told FRONTLINE last week that they found eligible voters on the purge list and concluded it was illegal to continue.

These local officials have said they’ll wait to see what the Justice Department decides before taking any more action. But technically, county officials could resume the process at any time.

This is the third case the Justice Department has pending against states it alleges are in violation of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discrimination against voters, and bars jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from making any alterations to voting law without approval from the attorney general or the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C. The DOJ also has suits pending against South Carolina and Texas over their voter ID laws.

In its letter warning of legal action, sent on Monday, the Justice Department attacked Florida’s plan on two points: It said the state started its purge too late, and that its attempt to remove noncitizens risked blocking eligible voters from casting ballots. States are prohibited from purging the voter rolls 90 days before a federal election, and Florida is holding a primary on Aug. 14. The department also said that the state was relying on flawed lists to conduct its purge.

“As one would expect with a new program that has not previously been tested against real-world information, your program has critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse eligible voters,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote in the letter.

Election officials had sent letters to “native-born citizens, including a decorated World War II combat veteran,” asking them to provide proof of citizenship or be dropped from the voter rolls, Perez said in the letter, adding: “Please immediately cease this unlawful conduct.”

Also on Monday, Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security, alleging the department has prevented Florida officials from using its citizenship database to check its rolls.

“For nearly a year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has failed to meet its legal obligation to provide us the information necessary to identify and remove ineligible voters from Florida’s voter rolls,” Detzner said in a press release. “We can’t let the federal government delay our efforts to uphold the integrity of Florida elections any longer. 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.”

The Justice Department responded in its Monday letter that election officials hadn’t provided the needed documentation necessary to verify voters’ citizenship with DHS, and said that the state’s charge that DHS and the Justice Department were working together to “deny Florida access” to DHS databases was “simply wrong.”

The secretary of state’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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