TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A judge on Wednesday rejected a request by federal authorities to block Florida's contentious move to remove potentially ineligible voters from its rolls.
The decision could prompt some counties to revive efforts to identify registered voters who are not U.S. citizens. Many counties had suspended the effort after hearing about conflicting legal opinions.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled there was nothing in federal voting laws that prevent the state from identifying ineligible voters even if it is close to the upcoming Aug. 14 election.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit earlier this month to halt the purge, saying federal voting laws barred the effort since it was within 90 days of a federal election. U.S. officials also said the list used by Florida had "critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse voters."
Hinkle in ruling from the bench said federal laws are designed to block states from removing eligible voters close to an election. He said they are not designed to block voters who should have never been allowed to cast ballots in the first place.
Although he said "questioning someone's citizenship" is not a trivial matter, Hinkle also said that non-citizens should not be allowed to vote.
"People need to know we are running an honest election," said Hinkle, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton.
A U.S. Department of Justice official said that the department would review the written decision when it was issued and declined to say whether federal authorities planned to appeal the ruling.
Ron Labasky, the legal adviser for the association that represents county election supervisors, sent out a memo late Wednesday telling supervisors if they have "sufficient documentation" that a person is not a U.S. citizen they can now remove them from the voting rolls.
Labasky said that Hinkle's ruling resolves the conflicting legal opinions over whether counties could move ahead with the purge even though there are still multiple lawsuits associated with the state's push.
State Association of Supervisors of Elections president Vicki Davis, the supervisor in Martin County, said many counties may still not go forward because they lack enough proof on whether voters are ineligible.
"We have worked the list as much as we can," said Davis.
It was Gov. Rick Scott who last year initiated the push to find non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls. Florida compared driver's license records with voter registration records and came up with the list of 182,000 registered voters who may not be U.S. citizens. The state did not send out the list because it was trying to access a federal immigration database to double-check the names.
Instead, in April, the state sent out a list of more than 2,600 names to election supervisors. Since then, local supervisors have removed roughly 100 voters from the rolls for being non-U.S. citizens, though at the same time more than 500 voters have turned out to be citizens.
A survey of supervisors showed that counties handled the list differently. Some never even sent out letters asking voters if they were not U.S. citizens. And some never did suspend their efforts. Collier County election officials said on Wednesday that it has removed 26 out of 27 voters sent to them by the state. Some of those voters were removed because they failed to respond to mail requests for information.
Scott, who has gone on multiple radio and television programs to defend the state's purge, praised Hinkle's decision.
"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," Scott said in a statement.
But during the court hearing, an attorney representing the state said Florida has voluntarily stopped pursuing a longer list of voters it has identified as potentially ineligible.
A spokesman for Scott said the state will not distribute that longer list unless the state can check the names against a federal immigration database. Florida is suing to obtain access to that database after getting rebuffed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Hinkle's ruling does not end the legal battle over the purge. The U.S. Department of Justice can still move ahead with its lawsuit even though the judge refused to block the state at this time. Voting groups have also filed their own lawsuits against the state in federal courts in Tampa and Miami.
Hinkle during his remarks decried the "partisanship" that had surrounded the voting battle and said that state and federal authorities should be working to ensure the rolls were accurate while making sure no citizens had an undue burden or hassle to vote