Florida Governor Rick Scott lost a federal court bid to throw out a challenge to his initiative to purge non-citizens from voter registration rolls ahead of the Nov. 6 presidential election.
U.S. District Judge James Whittemore in Tampa today ruled Mi Familia Vota Education Fund and two state residents may proceed with a complaint alleging the program requires pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act. Florida is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations that, under the act, must obtain pre-approval of some laws by either the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges.
The lawsuit was initially filed over Florida’s plan to use a motor vehicle database to identify non-citizens in its voter registration system. The state later opted to use a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database, which the plaintiffs also contend needs to be cleared under the federal voting law.
The allegations “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,” Whittemore said in the ruling allowing the lawsuit to stand. The judge wrote that he will rule at a later date on whether the state effort to purge voter rolls is subject to the federal voting law.
Florida, with about 11.5 million voters, is among a handful of states that both the campaigns of President Barack Obama and ex-Governor Mitt Romney see as winnable. Florida’s attempt to purge non-citizens from voter rolls, championed by Scott, a Republican, suffered a setback this month when a list of ineligible voters was cut by more than 2,000 residents to about 200 after the state received access to federal immigration data.
The Florida program is the subject of multiple suits by the federal government and voting rights groups in federal courts across the state. Similar efforts by Republican state officials to remove ineligible voters from the rolls, impose voter identification requirements and limit early voting are being challenged across the country.
The Florida court decision isn’t significant, according to Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the state. Even if the judge determines the program is subject to the Voting Rights Act, the federal government would then have to evaluate whether there is a violation, he said in a telephone interview.
“The Justice Department cannot reasonably conclude that a database created by the federal government to identify citizens is not an appropriate means for states to use to determine whether people on their voting rolls are non-citizens,” Carvin said.
“Regardless of anything else that the state says about the voter purge, the fact of the matter is it’s a change to voting law and it needs to be pre-cleared,” said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs in the suit.
Florida stopped the voter purge effort in April after local officials complained about using driver’s license data to determine voter citizenship, since that information isn’t regularly updated.
The case is Mi Familia Vota Education Fund v. Detzner, 12-cv-1294, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida (Tampa).