TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The governor's contentious push to remove thousands of potentially ineligible voters from Florida's lists has been met with a lawsuit from the Justice Department and handled very differently by the state's independent election supervisors, many of whom questioned the accuracy of the effort.
Gov. Rick Scott initiated the push last year to identify and remove non-U.S. citizens.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday, as it had threatened, filed a federal lawsuit against the state calling on it halt the ongoing purge because it is within 90 days of a federal election. The Scott administration a day earlier filed its own lawsuit demanding access to a federal immigration database that it says could help identify non-U.S. citizens.
And a survey by The Associated Press shows that many of the counties have not been uniform in the way they have treated the registered voters initially identified by the state as ineligible. It's up to the state's 67 election supervisors – most of whom are elected – to ultimately decide whether to remove a voter from the rolls. Some suspended their efforts because of questions about the accuracy of the list and never even sent out letters to voters asking about their citizenship status.
The Justice lawsuit also questioned the list. It said it has "critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse voters."
"The Department of Justice has an overriding interest in protecting the rights of eligible citizens to register and vote free from unlawful burdens," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
As for the election supervisors, two of them removed voters from the rolls only to reinstate them once the controversy over the state-created list erupted. Others have removed voters because the residents did not respond to certified letters asking them about their citizenship.
Scott – who went on national television Tuesday to defend Florida's actions so far – brushed aside any concerns that local election supervisors had not been uniform about how they have handled the list.
"I think they all care about doing their job the right way," Scott said at a ribbon cutting in Miami Lakes. "Every county is a little bit different, but I'm sure they're doing it the best way for their county."
Florida initially compared driver's license records with voter registration records and turned up as many as 182,000 registered voters who may not be U.S. citizens. But state officials did not release that list and instead sought access to a federal immigration database to verify the matches. That request so far has been turned down by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Earlier this year, state officials sent to local election officials a much smaller list of more than 2,600 voters and asked them to check the names. State officials contended that this list should be accurate because many of the people on it had told the state they only planned to be in the U.S. temporarily.
But many supervisors quickly began to question the accuracy of the names on the list and found errors.
The 37 election offices that responded to AP said they had found more than 500 legitimate citizens on the list and had removed 43 voters.
Many of those voters acknowledged they were not citizens, but people in Collier and Lee counties were removed because they ignored requests for information from local election officials despite receiving a certified letter. Two counties – Pinellas and Jackson – removed voters because they did not respond but then decided to reinstate them.
"Those voter records were reactivated when it became obvious that the information on the state's list was not dependable," wrote Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark in an email.
Some counties, such as Palm Beach and Leon, never sent out letters to voters.
Scott said the push to remove ineligible voters was needed to ensure that legitimate voters did not have their ballots diminished. He pointed out that new data from state officials showed that more than 50 ineligible voters had cast votes and that nearly 100 non-U.S. citizens had been removed from the rolls since April.
"That's illegal. That's a crime," Scott said. "We know that over 50 of them have voted in elections. They impact races. They dilute the vote of U.S. races and that's not right."
The governor, however, did not note that many of those removed from the rolls in recent months were not on the list prepared by state officials but had been deleted local supervisors.
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy contributed to this report from Miami.