Fort Lauderdale judge hears arguments in voter-purge case

A federal judge in Fort Lauderdale heard arguments Monday — but likely won’t rule until later this week — in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s contentious noncitizen voter purge.

At the heart of the case is a question of timing: Is it OK for the state to remove voters who are not citizens from the rolls 90 days before an election?

A coalition of liberal voting-rights groups, citing the risk of purging lawful citizen voters, says it’s not. Gov. Rick Scott’s elections department says it is — and last week produced a new list of 198 potentially ineligible voters to be reviewed by independent county elections supervisors.

Federal law generally prohibits purging voters 90 days from Election Day. That prohibition, which lists a few exceptions, is so broadly written that it should apply to noncitizens, argued Marc Goldman, an attorney for the coalition.

“If you do a big government program, the list is going to be inaccurate,” Goldman said. The law, he added, “is intended to bar any systematic purge.”

But Michael Carvin, an attorney for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, whose department created the list of potentially ineligible voters, said the state has discretion when dealing with noncitizens.

He countered that the 90-day prohibition applies to purging once-eligible voters who are no longer eligible — and not to noncitizens who were never supposed to register in the first place.

“If Fidel Castro showed up to vote, we couldn’t remove him from our rolls,” Carvin said, calling the coalition’s argument “absurd.”

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, who peppered the coalition’s lawyers with questions, said he plans to issue a ruling by the end of the week. The general election is Nov. 6.

In a separate lawsuit related to the purge, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, a Tallahassee federal judge ruled in June that the 90-day purge prohibition in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act refers to people lawfully registered to vote, such as felons, and is silent as to noncitizens.

The Fort Lauderdale lawsuit was originally filed by several voting-rights groups, including the 1199 SEIU United, a labor union that represents some 25,000 workers in Florida hospitals and nursing homes. The union found three of its members among an initial list of nearly 2,700 potential noncitizens the state released in May. Two of those workers are named among those suing.

In an effort to establish the groups’ grounds for suing the state, an SEIU vice president and the president of the local chapter of a Puerto Rican voting-rights group testified at Monday’s hearing. They said their organizations have had to devote time to reviewing the purge and explaining it to their members — time they would have otherwise spent on other elections-related work.

Earlier this month, the groups settled other portions of the case, one of several to stem from the initial list, which compared voter rolls to a highway-safety database with some outdated citizenship information. The new, shorter list used a federal database, known as SAVE, that is maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Monday’s hearing came as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating another election-fraud controversy: whether a consulting firm hired by the Republican Party of Florida, at the recommendation of the national party, fraudulently registered voters across 10 Florida counties, including five suspect registrations in Miami-Dade. The state GOP fired the vendor last week after Palm Beach County flagged about 100 suspect registration forms.

Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.