Judge halts federal attempt to block Florida’s voter purge

A judge on Wednesday rejected the federal government’s attempt to block Florida’s voter purge of non-U.S. citizens, partly because the purge has been suspended.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said federal laws that prohibit the systematic removal of voters close to an election do not refer to noncitizens. He also accepted the state’s claim that its purging efforts are over for now.

The ruling came as part of a request by the U.S. Department of Justice, which sought a retraining order stopping the purge efforts.

The agency argued that the purge violates a federal law, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which outlaws systematic removals of voters less than 90 days before a federal election. Florida’s primary is Aug. 14.

Hinkle interpreted the law to refer to people who were lawfully registered to vote before being removed, such as felons or the deceased. He said the law is silent as to noncitizens.

Justice Department lawyer John Bert Russ deplored the Florida “dragnet” that he said has unfairly forced U.S. citizens to prove their legitimacy. But he could not cite any instances of a legitimate voter being removed from the rolls.

At one point, Russ asked the judge to restore the voting rights of everyone who has been purged from the rolls, an idea Hinkle flatly rejected.

“Leaving ineligible voters on the list is not a solution. Noncitizens should not be voting,” the judge said. “People need to know we are running an honest election.”

Attorney Michael Carvin, representing Secretary of State Ken Detzner, said the state is suing to seek access to a Department of Homeland Security database to better ascertain the citizenship status of voters. The federal agency has so far refused the state’s request, claiming it has not received necessary information from the state.

“If we get the (federal) data, I do expect the state to proceed and protect the integrity of the voter rolls,” Carvin said.

The state argued that it has a duty to make sure noncitizens don’t cast ballots that would dilute the votes of citizens. But the purge set off a furor because it occurred so close to a presidential election and more than half of suspected noncitizens are Hispanics — a fact that concerned Hinkle.

“That’s discriminatory, at least in effect,” Hinkle said. “I don’t suggest that that was the purpose of this.”

Hinkle voiced concern over what he called an “overreach” by Collier County, which he said sent letters to potential noncitizens challenging whether people born in Puerto Rico are considered U.S. citizens. (They are.)

A staff member in the Collier elections office, Tim Durham, said the county never sent such a letter.

The bow-tied, bespectacled Hinkle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1996, expressed disappointment that the two sides are battling in court so close to the election.

“The federal government and the state government ought to be working together to try to minimize the mistakes,” he said.

In starkly political terms, the judge’s decision was a victory for Scott and a defeat for President Barack Obama and Democrats.

Scott praised Hinkle’s ruling. “The court made a commonsense decision consistent with what I’ve been saying all along: that irreparable harm will result if noncitizens are allowed to vote,” Scott said.

Even though the purge has stalled, it has caught fire across the country.

Sixty percent of Floridians in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said they agreed with Scott that noncitizens should not be on the rolls.

Democrats accuse Scott of trying to suppress votes in Florida, and the liberal group MoveOn.org is running a TV ad calling the purge “racist” and challenging Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to condemn it.

The state motor vehicle agency last year created a database of about 2,600 people whose citizenship was in question. But county election supervisors stopped scrubbing the rolls two weeks ago, after concluding the list was unreliable and contains the names of many voters who are U.S. citizens.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.