TALLAHASSEE -- A year-long stalemate between Florida and Washington ended Saturday when the federal government gave the state access to a comprehensive federal citizenship database, which the state will use to resume an election-year purge of noncitizen voters.
After repeatedly refusing, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed to open its database to the Department of State, which oversees Florida’s voter registration system. The state will now cross-check the names of Florida voters against a federal citizenship database known as SAVE, or Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.
It wasn’t clear why DHS changed course and the department had no comment Saturday. But the reversal comes after a federal judge in Florida refused to halt purge efforts.
The news is a victory for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has said the purge is necessary to guarantee fair elections. Democrats and voter advocacy groups have criticized Scott for the action, saying it is aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in an election year. Some groups filed lawsuits to block it.
Within days, Florida will resume the laborious process of purging non-citizens from the list of 11.2 million registered voters. A previous purge based on a flawed list of 2,700 drivers with voter cards who were suspected of being noncitizens ended last month when county election supervisors decided the list was inaccurate and unreliable.
"We are appreciative that the federal government is working with us," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner. "We believe this is a very big step in the right direction, and we hope our success paves the way for other states."
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration announced the settlement Saturday, describing it as "a new partnership" between the Republican governor and the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama. Scott has been critical of Obama, chiefly on the president’s health care program, but also on the use of federal stimulus money to jump-start the economy — billions of which Scott rejected for a high-speed rail system.
Detzner announced the compromise in a letter to Florida’s 67 county election supervisors.
"This access is a significant step towards ensuring ineligible voters cannot cast a ballot and dilute the ballot of eligible voters," Detzner wrote."
DHS ’s division of Citizenship and Immigration Services sent Detzner a three-paragraph letter dated July 9, which said: "States will be able to access SAVE to verify the citizenship status of individuals who are registered to vote in that state."
Florida has one of the largest immigrant populations of any state, and more than half of the people on the first purge list had Hispanic surnames. Hispanics are considered a crucial voting bloc in the race between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. It is a third-degree felony for a noncitizen to vote in an election.
The action by DHS closely follows a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, who rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to halt purge efforts on the basis of a 90-day "quiet period" in federal law before a federal election under the National Voter Registration Act.
In Hinkle’s courtroom, attorneys for the state signaled their plans to resume the purge if it gained access to the SAVE database.