Two weeks after Florida defied a U.S. Department of Justice order to stop trying to purge as many as 182,000 people it suspects are non-citizens from voter rolls, the state and U.S. governments both fired the legal equivalent of live rounds Monday.
The Justice Department said it will sue Florida in federal court for violating two federal laws that prevent states from suppressing voters. The state will be subject to "enforcement action," the agency said in a curtly worded letter. Hours earlier, Florida filed a lawsuit of its own against the federal government. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who oversees elections, sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the agency of denying access to a federal database with information about immigrants. The lawsuit claims the federal agency forced the state to run afoul of at least one of the two federal voting laws the Justice Department accuses it of flouting.
The lawsuits set in motion a formal legal battle between the state and federal governments and could unleash a protracted and politicized struggle between Florida and outside advocacy groups. The conflict will almost certainly restore the glare of national attention on a state elections apparatus disgraced for its role in the 2000 presidential election.
"This is now the showdown over democracy at the O.K. Corral," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based voting rights group that plans to sue Florida. The Justice Department "warned the state and they won't listen, so it's time for enforcement against the recalcitrant governor."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, ordered the purge of suspected non-U.S. citizens from state voter rolls and defended it again Monday amid growing outcry. Accusations have flown that the purge is a Republican-led effort to disqualify minority voters likely to support President Barack Obama in November. Others say Obama's Justice Department has intentionally blocked the purge for political purposes.
"It appears that the State of Florida is unwilling to conform its behavior to the requirements of federal law," wrote Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general and head of the federal law enforcement agency's Civil Rights Division. ... The significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation."
The Justice Department letter accuses the state of violating two laws. One, the Voting Rights Act, was put in place in 1965 to protect black and Latino voters who had faced poll taxes, literacy tests, alternative voting times or facilities. The law requires five Florida counties, along with a handful of mostly Southern states with histories of voter discrimination, to seek federal approval before changing voting policies or procedures. More than 60 percent of the voters declared suspect in Florida are black or Latino, according to a Miami-Herald analysis.
A second federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, requires states to make efforts to maintain accurate voter rolls. It also forbids states from removing voters from their rolls within 90 days of a federal election. Florida holds a congressional primary in August and the presidential election in November. The 90-day window began May 16, according to the Justice Department.
Florida officials continued to insist that the purge is legal and motivated by honorable intentions. The federal government is blocking the state's efforts to make sure the votes of citizens aren't diluted by the votes of non-citizens, they said.
"We just received the letter from DOJ, and are reviewing it," Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's office, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "However, we remain committed to ensuring the accuracy of Florida's voter rolls, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is our statutory responsibility."
It's unclear whether the legal fight will affect this fall's election. Election supervisors in all but one of the state's 67 counties -- the local officials who would be directly responsible for purging voter rolls -- have refused to participate, citing errors in the state's list of suspected non-citizens.
Earlier this year, election officials mailed warning letters to about 3,000 of the suspected 182,000 non-citizens, asking for proof of citizenship. Florida officials said they found 87 non-citizens on the voter rolls, including 47 who have voted.
The list also included more than 500 citizens. The suspected non-citizens included dead voters already removed from the rolls, natural-born U.S. citizens, people who were naturalized and registered to vote after applying for a driver's license and a World War II veteran who was forced to prove his citizenship.
The state blamed problems on the Department of Homeland Security, saying the federal citizenship database would allow the state to tune its attempt to match voting rolls with drivers' license information for immigration data.
"We have a right to this database," Gov. Scott said Monday on Fox News' Your World Cavuto show.
Florida has asked for access to the database since at least September and has received no response from Homeland Security, Detzner told the Justice Department earlier this month. Detzner has described the database roadblock as part of a federal conspiracy to illegally quash Florida's purge.
Perez, the Justice Department official, said in his letter Monday that the state was advised by its own drivers' license agency eight months ago that the immigration database operates according to rules designed to prevent mistaken identity and probably won't help the voter purge. The database does not include information on U.S. citizens born inside the country. Queries also must include the name, date of birth and the unique identification number assigned to every legal immigrant, refugee or American citizen born abroad. In many cases, Florida does not have these identification numbers.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a left-leaning legal advocacy organization, filed suit against Florida on Friday. A conservative advocacy and research organization, Judicial Watch, has promised to sue Florida and other key states with large number of electoral college votes if they do not continue efforts to eliminate ineligible voters from their rolls.
If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one had to be Mitt Romney's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/self-deportation-romney_n_1228296.html" target="_hplink">oxymoronic addition</a> to the English language: self-deportation. At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/mitt-romney-florida-gop-debate-self-deportation_n_1227129.html" target="_hplink">Romney answered</a> "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here." Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/25/gingrich-romney-self-deportation-plan_n_1230987.html" target="_hplink">an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich</a> (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Amazing.
Newt Gingrich At Café Versailles
Newt Gingrich didn't waste any time in 2012. In early January, he visited Little Havana's Café Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to rally support among Miami's Cuban-American population. Gingrich drank Cuban coffee and conversed with the restaurant staff, who by now must be used to politicians stopping by to score points among Latino voters. Strangely enough, they <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-caffeinated-newt-gingrich-talks-learning-english-cuba-and-chats-with-marco-rubios-dentist-a.html" target="_hplink">applauded once he was finished with his coffee</a>. GIngrich didn't miss a beat and told his audience how President of the U.S. his goal will be "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/14/gingrich-republican-candidates-florida_n_1205463.html" target="_hplink">to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring.</a>" He also talked about this stance on immigration, which he qualifies as <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-caffeinated-newt-gingrich-talks-learning-english-cuba-and-chats-with-marco-rubios-dentist-a.html" target="_hplink">more "humane" than the positions of his GOP primary opponents</a>. Nothing like spicy politicking to go with your <em>café con leche</em>.
The 'Three Amigos' Endorse Mitt Romney
An crucial moment in the Florida race was the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Florida's self-proclaimed <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/29/us-usa-politics-romney-idUSTRE7AS1XZ20111129" target="_hplink">"three amigos," </a>Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Herald calls this the <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/11/28/2522516/romney-picks-up-key-south-florida.html" target="_hplink">"ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta</a>." But this too led to controversy as these three Cuban-American politicians who now support Romney's candidacy -- and its conservative approach to immigration reform and threatened DREAM act veto -- have track records as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-florida-latino-republicans_n_1233613.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act</a>. "Those three in particular have had a history of supporting measures like the DREAM Act ... but everyone wants stability in the Republican party and they likely think Romney is the most likely to provide that," said Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-florida-latino-republicans_n_1233613.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">to The Huffington Post</a>. In the 2008 primary the trio endorsed Sen. John McCain -- over Romney -- due in part to his own advocacy for immigration reform.
NextGen Latino GOPers
A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in this new emerging political group. "Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/florida-primary-2012-latinos-gop_n_1236450.html?ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">told The Huffington Post.</a> Rubio's name comes up in every list of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/marco-rubio-vp-gop-candidates-florida-primary_n_1233480.html" target="_hplink">possible vice presidential candidates</a>. Thus far, however, he has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/marco-rubio-the-big-get-i_n_1224646.html" target="_hplink">remained neutral</a> in the primary race. Other Latinos who are gaining influence in Florida's Republican and conservative circles include <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/florida-primary-2012-latinos-gop_n_1236450.html?ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">Rep. David Rivera, who's backing cNewt Gingrich, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and state Rep. Erik Fresen.</a>
Latino Vote Takes Center Stage At CNN's GOP Debate
Last Thursday's GOP debate confirmed that the Latino vote is a dominant factor in the Florida primary. From the earliest moments of the debate, issues such as immigration reform, the DREAM Act, relations with Cuba, Puerto Rico's status, Latinos who could serve in a Republican Cabinet, and more were catnip to the candidates who were each seeking to wow the audience. Gingrich stood strong in his attack that Romney is the most "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">anti-immigrant</a>" candidate in the GOP race. Romney defended himself by calling the comments "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">inflammatory and inappropriate</a>." Romney then went on to criticize a Gingrich TV ad as an example of "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-immigration-florida-debate_n_1235344.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">over the top rhetoric</a>." The debate turned to focus on Cuba a few times, with Romney saying, "It is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president." Gingrich, who had appeared earlier at Florida International University, reiterated his <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/01/25/newt-gingrich-criticizes-obama-chavez-and-castro-in-florida-talk/" target="_hplink">support for a 'Cuban Spring'</a> if he is elected president.
Gingrich's Spanish-Language Radio Bomb Throwing
In an effort to win the Latino vote, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/newt-gingrich-spanish-lan_n_1217435.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">Newt Gingrich came out with a radio ad in Spanish</a> perfectly attuned to the local audience in his reiterated stance against the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba. Comically, the ad also tried to associate Mitt Romney to the local hatred of Cuba's regime, by criticizing Romney's 2008 use of a phrase often associated with Fidel Castro, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/newt-gingrich-spanish-lan_n_1217435.html?ref=latino-politics" target="_hplink">"patria o muerte, venceremos," which translates to "fatherland or death, we shall overcome."</a> But, perhaps aware that further down the road, other Latino voters will be more interested in immigration reform than Cuban relations, Gingrich went for broke and <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/01/in-miami-newt-gingrich-goes-up-on-spanish-language-radio-bashing-mitt-romney.html" target="_hplink"> labeled Mitt Romney as 'anti-immigrant'</a> in the ad.
Romney's Son Tries To Help Papa Romney Connect With Latino Voters
While campaigning in Hialeah, Florida, Romney gave the crowd what they wanted to hear, speaking forcefully of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/29/mitt-romney-pitch-cuban-americans_n_1240511.html?ir=Latino Voices&ref=latino-voices" target="_hplink">need to defeat the current dictators in Cuba and Venezuela.</a> So far, so good. But then he asked his young son, Craig, to speak to the mostly Cuban-American crowd in Spanish. Stepping up to the mic, Craig said, "<a href="http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/29/sheldon-alberts-hispanics-could-give-florida-to-romney-white-house-to-obama/" target="_hplink">Mi papá no habla español.</a>"
Candidates Make Their Case For Latino Conservatives
At January's Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, both Gingrich and Romney delivered speeches with the express aim of attracting the conservative Latino voter, specifically Florida's Cuban-Americans. Romney spoke passionately about freedom, which is a key issue for Cubans in the U.S. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-latinos_n_1237063.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">given that so many fled the authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba</a>. Gingrich also spoke about freedom, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/mitt-romney-newt-gingrich-latinos_n_1237063.html?ref=latino-voices&ir=Latino Voices" target="_hplink">and tried to outdo Romney with his vocal support for a 'Cuban spring'</a> and regime change in the island some 90 miles away.
Ron Paul On Immigration
Distancing himself from the harsh, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/fernando-espuelas/in-republican-debates-ide_b_1220288.html" target="_hplink">anti-immigrant rhetoric that's characterized this year's Republican primaries</a>, Ron Paul voiced a clear and more compassionate view regarding the subject during a conference in Nevada, where the Texas congressman said he favors a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">policy that doesn't rely on "barbed-wire fences and guns on our border."</a> Paul criticized politicians for blaming immigrants for the current economic situation in the country. "When things go badly, individuals look for scapegoats," Paul said <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">according to the Huffington Post</a>. "Hispanics, the immigrants who have come in, are being used as scapegoats." He went on to compare the current anti-immigrant rhetoric to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/ron-paul-immigration-nevada-caucus-2012_n_1247589.html" target="_hplink">Nazi Germany's targeting of Jews in the 1930s.</a> Paul said he was against laws that would require people to carry around identity papers to prove their legal status in the country.
John McCain Urges GOP Candidates To Adopt More Humane Approach To Immigration
In an interview with Univision, Sen. John McCain said that Republican candidates should adopt a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/john-mccain-mitt-romney-self-deportation_n_1257368.html" target="_hplink">"very humane approach" to immigration in order to secure Latino votes.</a> McCain, who endorsed Mitt Romney earlier this year has since distanced himself from the candidate's stance on immigration and even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/john-mccain-mitt-romney-self-deportation_n_1257368.html" target="_hplink"> publicly criticized Romney's "self-deportation" plan.</a> McCain, like Romney, opposes the DREAM Act.
Romney Names Immigration Hard Liner As Honorary Chairman
Romney named former Governor Pete Wilson-- a well known immigration hard-liner-- as Honorary Chairman of his California campaign. "I'm honored to have Governor Pete Wilson's support, because he's one of California's most accomplished leaders," Romney said on his website <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/02/06/mitt-romney-names-former-gov-pete-wilson-immigration-hardliner-as-honorary/" target="_hplink">as reported by Fox News Latino.</a> "As governor of California from 1991 to 1999, he led California from the depths of recession to prosperous economic recovery." But former Gov. Wilson is not only remembered for his economic policies, but also for his <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/mitt-romney-immigration-antonio-villaraigosa_n_1262552.html/" target="_hplink">hostile stance against undocumented immigrants in the mid 90s.</a> Wilson supported <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/harsh-immigration-laws_n_1073576.html" target="_hplink">Proposition 187</a> in 1994, which essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state's economy. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. Prop 187 was ultimately blocked by federal court.