The U.S. Department of Justice sued Florida on Tuesday to stop it from trying to remove noncitizens from its voter registration rolls.
The department says the way the state is going about doing this violates federal law. Florida says it's partly the federal government's fault for not sharing citizenship data with the state.
It's all part of the escalating battle between the Obama administration and Republican-led states over voting laws.
Earlier this year, Florida compared its voter registration lists against state driver's license records to see if there were any noncitizens illegally registered to vote. Officials say they found about 180,000 suspicious names. Local election officials sent letters to an initial list of about 2,600, asking them to verify their citizenship or be removed from the rolls.
But it quickly became clear that many of the people on the list were citizens, and that the motor vehicle data were inaccurate.
(NPR's Greg Allen reported on one World War II veteran, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and living in Florida's Broward County, who says he was "flabbergasted" to get one of those letters.)
In its suit, the Department of Justice says what Florida is doing violates the National Voter Registration Act — also known as the motor voter law. That law prohibits the removal of voters from the rolls within 90 days of an election. Florida is holding a primary Aug. 14.
But this wasn't the first lawsuit. On Monday, Florida filed a suit of its own, accusing the federal government of violating the law by not sharing a citizenship database with the state to use in the registration roll cleanup. State officials say they've been asking the Department of Homeland Security since last year to share the database, but have had no luck.
Federal officials say they have told Florida repeatedly that the DHS database isn't set up to be compared against voter records. And that it can't be used unless the state provides more information about specific voters, such as their alien registration numbers, which the state has not done.
That aside, Florida has defended its efforts to clean up the registration rolls. Republican Gov. Rick Scott says the state has an obligation to make sure that ineligible voters don't cast ballots. State officials say they've already removed about 100 noncitizens from the rolls and that they have evidence about half of them voted in the past.
Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine's School of Law, says illegal voting by noncitizens does occur, but it's not widespread. He says it's often the result of confusion by noncitizens who think they're allowed to vote.
Around the country, Republicans have generally pushed for more restrictive voting laws over the past two years, saying that they're needed to protect legitimate voters and prevent fraud.
But Democrats say the restrictions are a thinly veiled effort to intimidate voters, such as minorities, who are likely to vote Democratic. A suit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida says that the latest purge effort disproportionately targets Hispanics.
For now, the Florida purge is in something of a limbo. Local election officials have refused to continue sending out letters to voters, because of all the questions raised.
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The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the state of Florida. The reason: to stop the state from trying to remove non-citizens from its voter registration rolls. The Justice Department is not opposed to the idea of a voter roll cleanup, but says the way Florida is doing it violates federal law. In response, Florida officials say the federal government is partly to blame for not sharing citizenship data with the state.
We're joined now by NPR's Pam Fessler, to help sort things out. And, Pam, to start, what's the back-story here behind the DOJ suit?
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, earlier this year, Florida decided that it would compare its voter registration list against state driver's license records, to see if there were any non-citizens illegally registered to vote. Officials say they found about 180,000 suspicious names. Local election officials then sent letters out to an initial list of about 2,600 voters, asking them to either verify their citizenship or be removed from the voter rolls. But it quickly became clear that many of these people were in fact citizens and that the motor vehicle information was inaccurate.
So, the Justice Department has said that what Florida has done is in violation of the National Voter Registration Act, which is also known as the Motor Voter Law. And that law prohibits states or local officials from removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of an election. And Florida is holding a primary August 14th.
CORNISH: So what's the response from Florida state officials?
FESSLER: Well, in part...
FESSLER: ...the state is blaming the federal government. It says one of the reasons this is all happening so close to the election is that the state has been asking the Department of Homeland Security since last year to share a database it has of non-citizens, and that DHS has refused. So yesterday, Florida filed a lawsuit against DHS, claiming that the agency is illegally withholding this information.
Now, federal officials deny that they're not doing anything illegal and say that they've explained repeatedly to Florida that this database really can't be used very effectively to clean voter rolls. They say that unless the state can provide more information about a voter, such as their alien registration number, it's completely ineffective and the state hasn't done that.
That aside, Florida is defending its efforts to clean up the rolls. The Republican governor, Rick Scott, says the state has an obligation to protect the integrity of the voting process and to make sure that ineligible voters don't cast ballots. And it said that, in fact, the state's already found a hundred noncitizens on the rolls, and that they have evidence that about half of them have actually voted.
CORNISH: So, Pam, this looks pretty messy so close to the election. What happens next?
FESSLER: Well, DOJ is asking the court to issue an injunction to stop Florida from pursuing the purge. Although, local election officials have already refused to send out any more letters to voters because of all these questions that have been raised. And as you're probably well aware, this is really part of a much bigger political battle that's going on around the country over voting laws. Republicans have generally been pushing for more restrictions in the state, saying that they're trying to protect legitimate voters. But Democrats say that it's really just a thinly veiled effort to intimidate voters, such as minorities who are likely to vote Democratic.
CORNISH: NPR's Pam Fessler. Pam, thank you.
FESSLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.