Florida To Purge Non-Citizens From Voter Rolls

Florida officials say they plan to go ahead with efforts to purge people believed to be non-citizens from the state's voter rolls. The move comes after efforts by the Justice Department and county election supervisors to halt the purge.

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Florida officials are telling the Justice Department they plan to continue an effort to remove people who are not U.S. citizens from the state's voting rolls. Democrats and voting rights group are charging the administration of Republican Governor Rick Scott with voter suppression. And critics recently received support from the Justice Department. It sent elections officials a letter advising them that their attempt to purge voters appears to violate federal law. Florida officials say they disagree and that they have a legal right to purge ineligible voters. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In his letter last week, the head of the Justice Department's voting section advised Florida officials that federal law clearly prohibits purges of voting lists within 90 days of an election, and Florida is already within that window. The state has a primary scheduled for August 14th. The state's Republican governor, Rick Scott, says it's the fault of the Obama administration the voter purge is happening now. For months, he says, Florida elections officials asked for access to a Department of Homeland Security database to check U.S. citizenship records without success.

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: There's no perfect time to do any of these things. We just want fair elections. And that's what I always want. This is not a partisan issue. I mean, Republicans want fair elections, Democrats, independents, we all do.

ALLEN: Even before the Justice Department intervened, the Scott administration's voter purge was under fire. The state said it identified 180,000 potential noncitizens on the voting rolls. They forwarded to county elections supervisors the first batch of some 2,600 names. Supervisors sent out letters telling those on the list they had 90 days to prove their citizenship or be removed from the rolls. But county elections supervisors soon found many were citizens.

In Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, elections supervisor Ann McFall says one of the first people her office contacted is in the military, another someone who's voted 41 times in local elections, both citizens. As a group, she says county elections supervisors decided there were too many questions about the list to go forward with the purge.

ANN MCFALL: So we decided on our own that we weren't going to do anything in this 90-day time period, just not do anything, and let the governor demand that we do it and see what happens, what falls into place.

ALLEN: In Florida, county elections supervisors are elected officials who answer to the voters, not the governor, says McFall. And she laughs when asked about the governor's contention that the dispute about who can vote in Florida isn't a partisan issue.

MCFALL: Yeah, I think it's becoming more partisan. And I'm Republican. I'm not the only Republican supervisor out there just screaming from the rafters, saying let us do our job.

ALLEN: Officials with the Scott administration think much of the criticism is overheated. No U.S. citizens, they point out, have been removed from the voting rolls as a result of this purge. And they say they disagree with the Justice Department over its reading of the National Voter Registration Act or NVRA. Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department attorney in the George W. Bush administration, now with the Heritage Foundation, says noncitizens who register to vote are committing a felony. And there's nothing in the law, he says, to stop state officials from removing ineligible voters from the election rolls at any time.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: If you as a noncitizen register to vote, you are committing a felony under federal law. And there is nothing in the NVRA or any other federal statute that would require the state to keep someone on the rolls who committed a felony to get on the rolls.

ALLEN: That's not the only fight over voting going on in Florida. Last week, a federal judge put on hold new restrictions that led the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote to stop conducting voter registration drives in the state. Today, the two groups announced they're resuming their work registering new voters in Florida. Few here need to be reminded why rules over who can vote are so important. This after all is where the 2000 Bush-Gore election was decided by just 537 votes. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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