The battle lines are drawn as Florida and President Barack Obama’s administration are once again ready to face off in court in a major case with wide implications.
Two years after the state led the fight against the president’s healthcare initiative, Gov. Rick Scott is suing over the federal government’s attempts to prevent it from cleaning up its voter rolls of non-citizens.
But the White House is fighting back with a countersuit, claiming the nation’s fourth-largest state is acting illegally.
On Tuesday Scott, a Republican, made his case on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” show, calling his move “a no-brainer,” and adding, “We want to make sure our voters get to vote but non-U.S. citizens don't vote. It's simple.
“I've got to enforce the law of the land. I want to make sure that Florida voters that have a right to vote, get to vote, and are not diluted by non-U.S. citizens.”
Scott insisted his attempt to purge the voter rolls was not a partisan effort. “When non U.S. citizens register to vote and vote, it is illegal, it's a crime. It shouldn't be happening in our great state. We’re going to try fix our voters rolls and they are trying to stop us,” he added. “It doesn't make any sense.”
In court, Florida made the first move, suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over access to a database to verify the citizenship of residents on Monday.
Moments later, the Justice Department responded and said it had initiated steps to sue Florida for violating federal voting laws.
Supporters of the purge say it is aimed at clearing voter rolls of non-citizens. However, critics call it a part of long-running Republican efforts to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.
Florida, which Obama won by 2.8 percent over Republican John McCain in 2008, is again expected to be a key swing state in the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Officials initially said they were examining about 180,000 potential non-citizens. The state has identified about 2,700 registered voters who have been asked to produce proof of citizenship. According to The Miami Herald, 47 non-citizens who may have cast unlawful ballots have been found so far.
Filed in a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Florida's lawsuit accused the federal government of preventing the state from being able to check the citizenship status of voters by denying it access to a DHS database listing information on U.S. citizens.
"For nearly a year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has failed to meet its legal obligation to provide us the information necessary to identify and remove ineligible voters from Florida's voter rolls," Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement.
"We can't let the federal government delay our efforts to uphold the integrity of Florida elections any longer," he said.
The Justice Department has called on the state to halt the effort.
Last week, in a letter responding to a Justice Department statement that the purge could be illegal, Detzner said that it was the Obama administration that appeared to be violating the law by not granting Florida access to the database known as SAVE.
On Monday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote back to Detzner in a strongly worded five-page letter and said it "appears that the State of Florida is unwilling to conform its behavior to the requirements of federal law."
Perez warned that Florida's ongoing search and purging of non-eligible voters may violate the National Voter Registration Act, which requires that adjustments to voting rolls be made more than 90 days before an election. Florida holds a primary election on Aug. 14.
He said because of Florida's "unwillingness to comply with these requirements, I have authorized the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court."
Perez also said he was concerned about "inaccuracies" in the state's request for access to SAVE.
"The SAVE Program relies on DHS records, which do not include a comprehensive and definitive listing of U.S. citizens and does not include, for example, those born in the United States," he said.
He said Florida had failed to provide key information to cross-reference with the database including alien registration numbers or certificate numbers found on immigration-related documents
"Florida has failed either to provide the necessary information to DHS, or to confirm that the necessary information would be available for verification purposes under the SAVE program," he said.
"As a result the significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation," Perez added.
According to The Miami Herald, Florida's current list of potential non-citizen voters includes many people who are lawful citizens. One voter singled out as suspicious turned out to be a Brooklyn-born World War II hero with a Bronze Star from the Battle of the Bulge.
A disproportionate number of those identified are either Hispanic or black, the Herald said.
Last week, civil rights groups filed a legal challenge to the purge, arguing it violates legislation to protect minorities.
But Scott argues that he had little choice but to file the lawsuit: "We want to have fair, honest elections in our state. We've been put in the position of having to sue the federal government to get this information."
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