By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Today, a federal judge in Tallahassee handed Gov. Rick Scott a considerable victory. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle refused to halt the state’s controversial purge of non-citizens from the voter rolls.
According to the Associated Press, Hinkle said “that there was nothing in federal voting laws that prevent the state from identifying non-U.S. citizens even if it comes less than 90 days before the Aug. 14 election.” The AP reports:
Hinkle ruled that federal laws are designed to block states from removing eligible voters close to an election. He said they are not designed to stop states from blocking voters who should have never been allowed to cast ballots in the first place.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Florida for removing voters from its rolls within 90 days on election. The federal government and various voting rights advocates have alleged that the purge violates federal voting laws and could accidentally remove voting rights from people who are indeed citizens.
So far, most local election supervisors in the state have stopped removing voters from their rolls because of concerns over the accuracy of the list. There have already been a few cases where citizens have been identified in the state’s list of possible non-citizens.
Beside the lawsuit filed by DOJ, two other lawsuits were filed by civil rights and voting rights experts.
Florida has also filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for withholding information it would need for its voter purge efforts.
This was the first court ruling concerning the voter purge.
Hinkle denied the request for the emergency stop to the program in part because he said the state was no longer doing it.
But he also rejected Justice Department attorney John Bert Russ’s argument that the non-citizen voter purge violates federal law.
He also chided both administrations, saying the “federal government and the state government ought to be working together” to ensure honest elections.
Wednesday’s hearing is the first of multiple lawsuits over the voter purge. Scott is suing the Department of Homeland Security over access to a federal database the state contends would allow them to create a less error-prone list than the Secretary of State Ken Detzner distributed to county supervisors in April.
While he denied the emergency restraining order, Judge Hinkle allowed the lawsuit to move forward.
And he put Detzner on notice that he would be available for future emergency hearings if the state “ramps up” the voter purge without making sure the list was less error-riddled.
The state has maintained that it has the right and responsibility to remove voters it believes are ineligible anytime before an election. However, it is this question of accuracy that has incited a barrage of legal challenges.
Brennan Center for Justice counsel Diana Kasdan on Wednesday told reporters that at least 500 of those notified had already provided proof of citizenship.
“Also, this list has a disproportionate number of Hispanic voters and other minority groups are overrepresented on it,” she explained. “Florida is running a large-scale purge based on faulty information at the last minute, with less than two months to the primary that’s coming up in August.”
“Past examples in Florida and elsewhere show that this kind of systematic purge is inherently problematic and error prone. And particularly when it’s conducted at this late stage without time to make corrections.”
Scott released a statement following the ruling. He said “the court made a common-sense decision consistent with what I’ve been saying all along: that irreparable harm will result if non-citizens are allowed to vote.”
The Scott administration has said that about 100 non-citizens were found on the state’s voter rolls. So far, many of the 2,600 on the state’s purge list have turned out to be citizens who are eligible to vote.
However, Hinkle said in court that “questioning someone’s citizenship unnecessarily is not as trivial as the state would have it, but leaving an ineligible voter on the list is not a solution.”
“People need to know we are running an honest election,” Hinkle said.