MIAMI -- Gov. Rick Scotts administration is positioning itself for a showdown with the U.S. Department of Justice for demanding that Florida cease searching for and purging noncitizen voters.
The DOJ gave Florida until Wednesday to respond to a letter, sent last week, that said the purge probably ran afoul of two federal voting laws.
Florida will respond, but it probably wont quit its effort and will likely ask the DOJ to clarify its interpretation of the federal laws it cited.
Our letter will address the issues raised by DOJ while emphasizing the importance of having accurate voter rolls, said Chris Cate, spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, whos in charge of the states elections division.
Cate would neither confirm nor deny what was in the states response, but he acknowledged that the state disagrees with the federal government and doesnt plan to throw in the towel. We know weve been acting responsibly, he said.
If Scotts administration stares down the DOJ, it will only heighten the partisan feud over the voter rolls in the nations largest swing state.
Liberals will protest at what they call voter suppression because so many of the targeted potential noncitizens 87 percent are minorities. Conservatives will cheer a Republican who opposes what they see as one of the most-politicized agencies under President Barack Obama, DOJs voting section. Some want Scott to force the DOJ to sue. A DOJ spokesman refused comment.
If the state pushes ahead, its defiance or resistance might be more symbolic than actual.
The attempted purge has been put on hold in nearly all 67 counties after the DOJ demanded the effort cease. Also, the state-produced list of nearly 2,700 suspected noncitizen voters was generated with some outdated data, targeing hundreds of actual citizens who are lawful voters. So far, no one has been purged who has not admitted that he or she is a noncitizen.
Without the counties, the purge effort cant go on because the 67 independently elected supervisors are in charge of voter rolls in each of their counties. The state is, in one sense, just the custodian of all those records.
Regardless of who does the actual purging, the federal government wants it to stop, according to the Thursday demand letter from T. Christian Herren Jr., the Justice Departments lead civil rights voting lawyer.
He said the state effort appears to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which affects at least five Florida counties, and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which obligates states to remove ineligible voters from rolls.
Known as Motor Voter, the registration act also lays out specific purge rules and this requirement: A State shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.
Herren pointed out that, under the law, the state had to stop May 16 due to the Aug. 14 primary.
Republican lawyers in Floridas Capitol are wrestling with that 90-day prohibition and the definition of systematically. Some argue that, since the state is not actually removing people from the rolls the counties would be it might be able to continue checking voter-registration data with limited citizenship data contained in a state motor-vehicle database. Also, the state could argue it has already completed its checks, before the 90-day window, and now its leaving it up to the counties.