Feds OK Florida access to U.S. citizens list

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.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, one of several groups that challenged the initial purge, predicted that groups would use the 90-day provision to thwart the state’s new review of voters’ eligibility.

"There is a reason why there is a federal law that prohibits this kind of purging 90 days before an election," the ACLU’s Howard Simon said.

"Based on the work we have completed during the past year, it is an unfortunate but now undeniable fact that Florida’s voter rolls include a number of non-citizens," Detzner told the election supervisors. "These ineligible registered voters must be removed to ensure the integrity of our elections. Under our new partnership with DHS, the Department of State is now better equipped to accurately identify these non-citizens through a careful and deliberate process not possible only days ago."

The state had filed a lawsuit against the federal government over its refusal to grant access to the citizenship database.

The federal government said it denied Florida elections officials access to the information because the state failed to provide necessary "unique identifiers" such as alien registration numbers or certification numbers on immigration documents. Cate said the state had the data, yet the feds still refused to grant access.

Cate said the purging of the rolls would begin as soon as possible. Under state law, only county election supervisors can revoke a voter’s eligibility, following two separate 30-day notification periods, through a certified letter and a legal notice in a newspaper.

In Miami-Dade, 1,572 people were sent letters seeking to confirm their citizenship; 562 responded, of whom 14, or 2.5 percent, admitted ineligibility, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of two local Hispanic women. The suit alleges that the voter purge violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any action that denies or abridges the voting rights of racial or ethnic minorities. The complaint says that while 14 percent of voters in Florida are Hispanic, 61 percent of the names on the state list are Hispanic.

In Broward, the county received a list of 259 names. Seven responded that they were citizens, and six were removed after reporting that they were not citizens. Supervisor Brenda Snipes, a Democrat, did not remove the remainder who didn’t respond, halting the purge in early June. Palm Beach received 115 names from the state but never sent the voters letters or removed any.The controversy is playing out in the midst of a close presidential election in the nation’s biggest battleground state. That means that if any supervisors of election question the accuracy of the SAVE database, they will in effect be criticizing Obama.

The state said it would still release a list of 182,000 motorists with voter cards whose citizenship was questioned, but that list, like the smaller version of 2,700, was based on outdated data compiled by the state highway safety agency. The state now calls the list of 182,000 voters "obsolete."

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alex Leary in Washington and Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.