Florida election officials responded late Wednesday to a Department of Justice warning to quit purging suspected non-citizens from state voter rolls with an unapologetic explanation and no agreement to stop.
The letter Florida sent to the Justice Department met a deadline set by the federal government late last month, but will likely trigger an extended legal battle between the state and federal governments and advocacy organizations. Florida's response cited a medley of laws governing voting and used language strikingly similar to that of conservative advocacy groups claiming widespread voter fraud threatens the integrity of national elections.
If the U.S. blocks the purge, the federal government may be in violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, Florida told the Justice Department. Non-citizen votes would dilute the votes of citizens, the letter claimed. "Presumably eligible voters in Florida have the right to bring a lawsuit in federal court to test whether their votes are being unconstitutionally denied by the federal government," if the purge isn't allowed, Secretary of State Ken Detzner wrote in the letter.
The Justice Department, the nation’s top law enforcement agency and voting rights watchdog, issued a two-line statement that said it was "reviewing the letter." Justice Department officials declined to elaborate.
The Justice Department in a May 31 letter warned Florida that efforts to identify and purge suspected non-citizens from voter rolls violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.
In his response, Detzner said the purge has already received the kind of permission required by a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act covering counties with a history of minority voter suppression. In addition, the state blamed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for its delay of the purge and its breach of a federal law banning voter purges within 90 days of a federal election. The state said it awaited access to a federal database of naturalized citizens and argued it shouldn't be held to the law now because it would not be able to strike illegal voters until after the Nov. 6 presidential election.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment late Wednesday.
Florida’s response to the U.S. also defended warning letters that election officials sent to suspected non-citizens, telling them it's against the law for ineligible people to vote. The law doesn't prevent such letters, Florida said, and doesn't bar the state from checking whether these people vote in November. The state also challenged the Justice Department to answer questions about access to the Homeland Security database.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) ordered the purge of alleged non-citizens and continued to defend it in interviews this week.
The state has identified as many as 182,000 suspected non-citizens on the voter rolls. County level election officials sent letters to nearly 3,000 of these voters demanding proof of citizenship within 30 days or face removal from voter rolls. The letters also warn that casting a ballot when ineligible is a felony. Many voters identified by the state as suspected non-citizens are legal immigrants.
Hundreds of of those legal residents have since come forward to object. And some county elections officials –- Republicans and Democrats -- have openly criticized the state list’s accuracy.
Groups agreeing with the state said purging suspected non-citizens is the best way to prevent voter fraud and prevent Democrats from gaining an unfair edge in November.
“The Democrats want illegal aliens to be able to vote because they want the election to be decided in favor of the president," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative research and advocacy organization threatening legal action if 12 states, including Florida, fail to clean up voter rolls. “It’s just extraordinary to have the sitting president attacking states trying to further federal law in the interest of ensuring the integrity of the elections.”
Groups defending voting rights of poor and minority voters said Florida appears determined to suppress minority voters.
”Unfortunately, the governor has not learned the lessons from the 2000 election, when thousands of eligible voters were purged from the rolls as a result of bad data matching and denied their right to vote,” said Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Election Legal Network, in a statement.
“Florida’s refusal to adhere to federal law and cease purging citizens from their rolls shows that the state’s reckless disregard for the rights of all Americans,” said Penda Hair, a director of the Advancement Project, one of at least two voting rights advocacy organizations threatening to sue Florida. “The right for all citizens to participate in their government is the cornerstone of our democracy. For states to cheat Americans of this right for what appears to be partisan gain is shameful.”
Last week, after the Justice Department warned Florida to stop the purge, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections recommended members stop participating in the purge. All but one Florida county election official is a member of the association.
“I think there are far too many questions here about the process and the accuracy of that list to continue forward with the purge," said Ron Labasky, the association’s general counsel. "We’ve done everything that we can to make that clear to our members.”
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents coastal district that includes Palm Beach and Broward counties and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the state's continued defiance "is politics at its worst."
"Stripping the right to vote from United States citizens is the real threat to the integrity of our elections," Deutch said.