06/15/2012 02:02 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2012

Florida Voter Purge: U.S. Lawsuit Against Florida Attacks Process, Not Principle

Experienced canvassers know that to register voters in South Florida, bottled water is as essential as voter registration forms. But this year, as National Council of La Raza workers and volunteers knock on the region's doors and try to add an estimated 130,000 eligible Latino voters to the rolls, something else matters a great deal: their photo ID badges.

"We've had a lot of people we visit say, 'OK, wait right there,' grab their cellphone and with the canvasser at the door actually call us," said Camila Gallardo, a Miami-based spokeswoman for La Raza. "We're getting questions like, 'Does this person really work for you? Is this going to get me into trouble?' People are wondering where this data is going, what kind of list is being made now."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) ongoing quest to purge as many as 182,000 Florida voters has left some Latinos afraid to register and others more likely to shirk voting in November, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Republican and Cuban American, told NPR on Thursday. Still, the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit filed against the state this week to halt the purge doesn't mention the word fear. It scarcely references the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars acts that may intimidate minority voters or disproportionately dampen their influence on an election.

Instead, the federal fight against Florida focuses on process.

The Department of Justice declined to discuss why the agency did not sue the state under the Voting Rights Act. The suit government lawyers filed in a Tallahassee federal court on Tuesday accuses Florida of violating the National Voter Registration Act.

The National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 law, requires states to make regular efforts to remove ineligible voters. That includes the dead, the mentally incompetent and people who have committed certain crimes. The law bars removal of most voters within 90 days of a federal election, lest they run out of time to object and be reinstated.

Florida will hold its congressional primary Aug. 14 and the presidential election on Nov. 6. A purge should have stopped in mid-May, federal officials said.

Florida Republicans, including Scott, Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Sen. Marco Rubio, defend the purge. Preventing ineligible voters from diluting the votes of others ranks among the state's responsibilities, Scott has said. Florida this week sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, blaming blocked access to a U.S. immigration database for any violation of the law.

Scott has said the purge uncovered 87 non-citizens on the voter rolls, including 47 who have voted in the past. A state list of nearly 3,000 suspected ineligible voters also included the names of at least 500 citizens. The entire group received letters earlier this year asking for proof of citizenship.

That list included so many people of color that some voting rights advocates insisted the purge is a database-driven example of old-fashioned voter intimidation, discrimination and suppression. Nearly 60 percent of the voters on the list are Latino, yet Hispanic voters make up only 16 percent of the state's electorate.

"If that's not disparate impact, I really don't know what is," said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The ACLU of Florida filed suit last week against the state on behalf of two U.S. citizens whom Florida election officials threatened to remove from the voter rolls unless they proved their citizenship. The first is a Dominican American woman. The other is a Haitian American man. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens. The man, Murat Limage, initially thought the state warning letter meant his citizenship and right to vote were in jeopardy, Johnson said.

The ACLU's suit makes frequent mention of the Voting Rights Act, its protections for minority voters and its prohibitions on voter intimidation.

"This purge, it really is an all-out attempted assault on the Voting Rights Act, the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, the law that ensures every citizen can participate in this democracy," Johnson said.

The ACLU and other voting rights groups have warned Florida that the timing of the purge also violates the National Voter Registration Act. Under that law, the groups must wait 20 days after those warnings before filing lawsuits.

The Justice Department is not subject to the waiting period, election experts said. And the government's move to sue under the National Voter Registration Act, rather than a civil rights complaint, may simply be a matter of efficiency.

The Department of Justice "case is a slam-dunk," said Judith A. Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based voting rights organization that also warned Florida of violating the two federal voting laws. "We commend DOJ for moving swiftly and strategically because the governor's purge program could suppress a significant number of legitimate voters."

The nation need not endure another election in which Florida's questionable voting system or an unclear outcome plays a role, said Browne Dianis. In 2000, a purge of more than 8,000 voters shortly before the election and a number of voting irregularities produced one of the most contentious election outcomes in U.S. history. George W. Bush prevailed by 537 votes. The Supreme Court halted a recount.

Today, a Voting Rights Act claim would have required the federal government to gather statistical evidence proving the purge disproportionately affects minority voters, said Robert Brandon, president of the Washington-based Fair Elections Legal Network, which also has warned Florida that the purge appears to violate the two federal voting laws. Alternatively, Brandon said, government lawyers would have needed to prove black and Latino voters in five Florida counties already subject to more intense federal monitoring would see their voting power reduced by the purge.

"From a legal point of view, it's not hard to understand why the Department of Justice took the route that they did," said Brandon, a lawyer. "It's the clearest and most direct path to protecting these folks right to vote right now."

Back in South Florida, the purge project has frightened some eligible Latino voters, but will probably galvanize others, said Gallardo, of La Raza.

"When I think about the fact that this is happening in 2012, such a bald-faced attempt to undermine the bedrock of our democracy, it makes me sad," Gallardo said. "But when I think about the fact that people like my grandmother, a Cuban American who worked hard to pass the citizenship test when she was well into her 80s, might have been caught up in this purge, it makes me mad. It makes me really want to vote. And I don't think I’m alone in that."