MIAMI -- Gov. Rick Scotts elections chief on Wednesday defiantly refused a federal demand to stop purging non-citizens from Floridas voter rolls, intensifying an election-year confrontation with President Barack Obamas administration as each side accuses the other of breaking federal law.
In a sharply worded letter, Scotts administration claimed the Department of Justice doesnt understand two federal voting laws at the heart of the dispute and was protecting potentially illegal voters more than legal ones.
Florida also accused another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, of violating the law by denying Florida access to a federal citizenship database.
This hardly seems like an approach earnestly designed to protect the integrity of elections and to ensure that eligible voters have their votes counted, said the letter, written by Scotts hand-picked secretary of state, Ken Detzner, a fellow Republican.
Detzner also submitted a list of four questions that he wants the DOJ to answer.
In tone and substance, the letter all but dares the Justice Department to sue Florida for allegedly violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), nicknamed motor voter.
Last week, after the Justice Department letter came out, county election supervisors suspended the purge. Several said a list of nearly 2,700 potential noncitizen voters overwhelmingly minorities was unreliable and included hundreds of actual citizens who are lawful voters.
The states latest action promises to escalate the debate over hunting down suspected illegal voters in the nations largest battleground state. Liberal groups, which requested DOJ involvement, condemned the Scott administration; conservatives praised it, slamming DOJ for its interference.
Meantime, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi refused to rule out suing Homeland Security to gain access to its database for voter-registration checking. From voting to healthcare to immigration, Scott and Bondi, both Republicans, have shown few reservations in challenging the Obama administration.
The Justice Departments top voting rights lawyer, T. Christian Herren, said last week that Floridas voter-purge effort violated NVRA because it fell within 90 days of a federal election.
Detzner argues Herren misread the law, which only applies to purges of once-eligible citizens who become ineligible through criminal conviction, death or mental incompetence. The 90-day purge-ban, which has barely been litigated, largely applies to efforts to remove voters who have moved not voters who were ineligible in the first place, Detzner said.
DOJs reading of the NVRA would grant greater protection against removal from the voter rolls to non-citizens who were never eligible to vote than to other categories of registered voters, Detzner wrote. Such a result is plainly contrary to the NVRAs express purpose of ensur[ing] that accurate and current voter registration rolls are maintained.
If the state followed the federal demand, Detzner wrote, then it would help unlawful voters cast ballots. And that could cancel out the ballots cast by lawful voters and would therefore violate the U.S. Constitution, Detzner said.
If the effect of the NVRA is to force a state to allow never-eligible non-citizens the opportunity to vote, he wrote, then the statute might violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, which guarantees that the right to vote cannot be denied by a dilution of the weight of a citizens vote.