Florida Sued by Nonprofits Over Voter-Roll Program

Florida was sued by two voters and five groups including a labor union over claims the state’s efforts to purge non-citizens from the voting rolls discriminated against Hispanic and black voters.

The suit, filed yesterday in federal court in Miami, is the first on behalf of individuals who were on a list of potential noncitizens flagged for removal from the voter rolls. Earlier this month, Florida was sued by the U.S. Justice Department, which claimed the state violated the National Voting Rights Act because the purge was being done within 90 days of a federal election. The next election in Florida, a primary that includes elections for federal office, is set for Aug. 14.

The “purging of eligible voters from the official voter list” gave blacks and Hispanics “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect the representatives of their choice,” the plaintiffs said in yesterday’s complaint.

Karla Vanessa Arcia, a naturalized citizen from Nicaragua and one of two individual plaintiffs, was placed on the list without having received notification that she must provide election officials with verification of her citizenship, said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, one of the lawyers who filed the suit.

‘Result of Fear’

The second individual plaintiff, Melande Antoine, a naturalized citizen from Haiti, received notification and was so concerned that she might not be able to vote that she went to the election supervisor’s office in Miami to show officials her documentation, Rodriguez-Taseff said in a conference call with reporters.

“As a result of fear, she did more than she needed to do,” Rodriguez-Taseff said. She said the purge, in addition to discriminating against minorities, disproportionately affects certain counties, with more than 50 percent of the people on the list living in South Florida.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, has defended the program as a means of fighting voter fraud.

“Every one of the complaints in these lawsuits can be traced right back to the Department of Homeland Security’s refusal to grant Florida access to their citizenship data,” said Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott.

“We know we have a problem just from the very small test sample that we did,” Burgess said. “We found confirmed cases of noncitizens voting in Florida. The governor believes that’s a problem and we’re trying to fix it.”

Database Access

On June 11, Florida sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over access to a database to verify the citizenship of residents.

The list of 2,700 names was compiled by checking voter rolls against citizenship information held by the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said Chris Cate, spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

The list includes some inaccuracies, such as people who became citizens after they got their drivers’ license, while 107 noncitizens have been identified and removed from the rolls, including 56 who have cast ballots in prior elections, Cate said.

“We’re not aware of any citizens who have been removed from the voting rolls,” Cate said.

The groups filing the suit include Miami-Dade County-based civic group Veyeyo, Immigrant Coalition Inc. and Florida New Majority, two nonprofit organizations, National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, a Pennsylvania nonprofit group, and labor union 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Voter Limits

The U.S. warned Florida in a May 31 letter that the state’s program to identify ineligible voters may violate federal law, including one aimed at reviewing voter limits in states such as Florida with a history of racial discrimination. The state responded by saying the initiative is valid.

Florida Democrats have assailed the purge as an effort to give presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney an advantage over President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in a swing state four months before the election.

A majority of Florida voters disapprove of Scott’s push to “eliminate some people” from the voter rolls, according to a June 8 survey from Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling.

Scott, meanwhile, has campaigned on the issue. He told a Tea Party rally on June 10 in Tallahassee, the state capital, that the Obama administration was “stalling” his efforts to ensure a “fair and honest” election.

The individual case is Arcia v. Detzner, 1:12-cv-22282, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (Miami). The U.S. case is U.S. v. State of Florida, 4:12-cv-00285, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida (Tallahassee).

To contact the reporters on this story: Susannah Nesmith in Miami at susannahnesmith@yahoo.com; Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee at mbender10@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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