By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Yet again, Gov. Rick Scott and state officials are telling the U.S. Department of Justice that they are wrong about voting rights.
A week ago, the federal agency told the Scott administration to stop looking for and removing noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls.
The Justice Department said that purging voter roles 90 days before an election is illegal.
The Scott administration disagrees.
Gov. Rick Scott’s election’s chief on Wednesday defiantly refused a federal demand to stop purging non-citizens from Florida’s voter rolls, intensifying an election-year confrontation with President Barack Obama’s administration as each side accuses the other of breaking federal law.
In a sharply worded letter, Scott’s administration claimed the Department of Justice doesn’t understand two federal voting laws at the heart of the dispute and was protecting potentially illegal voters more than legal ones.
Florida also accused another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, of violating the law by denying Florida access to a federal citizenship database.
“This hardly seems like an approach earnestly designed to protect the integrity of elections and to ensure that eligible voters have their votes counted,” said the letter, written by Scott’s hand-picked secretary of state, Ken Detzner, a fellow Republican.
Here is the last bit of the letter that Secretary of State Ken Detzner sent the Justice Department, which includes four pointed questions offered to the federal agency:
It is an unfortunate but now undeniable fact that Florida’s voter rolls include individuals who are not citizens of the United States. The Florida Department of State has a solemn obligation to ensure the integrity of elections in this State. Permitting ineligible, non-citizen voters to cast ballots undermines that mission and erodes the justified faith the electorate has in the fairness and reliability of the electoral process. To enable the Department of State to meet its responsibility to enforce both federal and state law, and to determine what further action may be necessary, please provide us with answers to the following questions by June 11:
(1) Does the DOJ agree that the Department of Homeland Security has a legal obligation to provide Florida access to the SAVE database?
(2) Is it the DOJ’s position that the NVRA prohibits any actions by Florida to identify and remove non-citizens from its voter registration rolls between today’s date and the date of the November 6 General Election?
(3) If not, what steps does the DOJ believe Florida may take to identify and remove non-citizens from its voter registration rolls between today’s date and the date of the November 6 General Election?
(4) If the DOJ’s position is that the NVRA prohibits Florida from removing non-citizens from its voter registration rolls between today’s date and the date of the November 6 General Election, is it the DOJ’s position that the NVRA prohibits Florida from taking action to even identify non-citizens on its voter registration rolls for later removal and, if warranted by the facts and law, prosecution by appropriate law enforcement authorities?
Yet this isn’t the first time that Florida has told the Justice Department it was wrong about voting rights.
Last year, the Florida Legislature passed a massive overhaul of the state’s election laws. Critics have called the bill, which Gov. Scott signed, an effort aimed at hindering access to the polls for minorities, students and low-income voters during the 2012 election.
The law places onerous restrictions on third party voter registration groups, cuts early voting days and makes it harder for people to change their address on their voter registration in certain cases.
The law is currently being implemented throughout the state — except in five counties (Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe), which are protected under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 requires federal preclearance for any new elections laws impacting minorities.
The Justice Department was originally supposed to pre-clear the Florida law, but in August 2011, then-Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning withdrew some of the more controversial portions of the bill from review by the agency.
Instead, a court panel in Washington, D.C. was tasked with deciding whether the four most controversial provisions violate the voting rights of minorities.
Despite the state’s deliberate removal of the Justice Department from the process, the agency still issued an opinion to the court and expressed concern with parts of the law.
One of the Justice Department’s duties is to make sure that the Voting Rights Act is upheld nationwide. It has a voting division and team of lawyers dedicated to that mission. Yet, given the chance, the state has continued to dismiss input from the division.