Florida election officials will have access to a federal database to help purge its voter rolls of non-citizens under an agreement reached between state and federal officials and welcomed on Saturday by Florida's Republican governor.
Florida and federal officials have been battling over access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database for several weeks. Florida filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to gain access to the database. The state was hit by a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department seeking to stop the purge.
Now other states are expected to ask for access to the database so they too can check their rolls. Some state governments have sought access to the federal database for years. Federal officials told Washington state back in 2005 they saw no way to compare voters and the Homeland Security information.
Colorado has sought the federal data for a year. The Centennial State, which has a Democratic governor but a Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, has identified about 5,000 registered voters that it wants to check against the federal information.
Officials in the politically competitive states of Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico and Iowa — all led by GOP governors — are backing his efforts.
Gessler said 430 registered voters have acknowledged being ineligible, but an "unenforceable honor system does not build confidence in our elections."
Gessler also is seeking information from jails in 10 of the state's largest counties for persons held on "immigration detainers" since 2010, the Denver Post reported.
Justice Department officials have said the database is not a comprehensive listing of citizens and that state officials failed to hand over key information to cross-reference the listing.
"We've already confirmed that non-citizens have voted in past elections here in Florida," Gov. Rick Scott, who has spearheaded the purge effort, said in a statement welcoming the agreement.
"Now that we have the cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security, our state can use the most accurate citizenship database in the nation to protect the integrity of Florida's election process.
Scott's attempts to purge the voters' list is popular in Florida. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News poll released on Saturday showed 54 percent of Floridians in favor with 35 percent against. Republicans supported the measure by 80 percent to 13 percent.
Florida state officials have said they are examining a list of nearly 180,000 possible non-citizens and have forwarded the names of nearly 2,700 registered voters to local election officials seeking confirmation of their citizenship status.
Supporters of the purge say it aims to protect the integrity of voter rolls. Critics say the effort relies on faulty information and risks disenfranchising legitimate voters.
"No matter what database Florida has access to, purging voters from the rolls using faulty criteria on the eve of an election could prevent thousands of eligible voters from exercising their rights," said Jonathan Brater, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "Florida must use a more transparent and accurate process, and must leave enough time for voters targeted for removal to be notified and correct errors," he said.
The agreement was signaled in a July 9 letter sent by Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
The letter informed Detzner that the database would become available to state election officials once a memorandum of understanding is agreed to by both parties over its use.
Detzner applauded the agency's decision in a letter to local election supervisors on Saturday.
"Florida voters are counting on their state and federal governments to cooperate in a way that ensures elections are fair, beginning with ensuring the voter rolls are current and accurate," Detzner said.
"We now have a commitment to cooperate from DHS and we look forward to a partnership that improves the integrity of our election process."
The agreement to grant Florida access comes just over two weeks after a federal judge in Tallahassee rejected a request by the Justice Department to prevent the state from proceeding with its voter purge.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said his ruling was based in part on assurances from Florida election officials that they would not forward any more names to county elections supervisors based on the previous list of 180,000 people.
That list was drawn from drivers' license and voter registration records and had proven to be inaccurate.
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