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Florida sues DHS in effort to purge voter rolls

State wants access to a database to verify the citizenship of suspected illegal immigrants.

The state of Florida is taking its controversial push to purge the state's voter rolls of ineligible voters to the next level with a suit against the Homeland Security Department filed by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Monday.

The suit accuses DHS of failing to provide the state with access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program database to verify the citizenship of suspected illegal immigrants on Florida’s voter rolls. Florida has been working off of its Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Department information over the past year to purge its voter rolls of suspected illegal immigrants, but the data can be out of date or incorrect.

“We can’t let the federal government delay our efforts to uphold the integrity of Florida elections any longer. We’ve filed a lawsuit to ensure the law is carried out and we are able to meet our obligation to keep the voter rolls accurate and current,” Detzner said in a statement.

Detzner indicated that access to the SAVE database would solve this documentation problem, but that DHS had failed to respond to a year of repeated requests for access, violating federal law. He cites a September 2011 briefing that states that the “[Illegal Immigration Reform and immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996] provides for customer agencies to use SAVE for any legal purpose, such as credentials, background investigations, and voter registration.” But a letter issued by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez to Detzner on Monday points out that the SAVE database can only be used if Florida can provide unique identifiers, like alien registration numbers or certificate numbers found on immigration-related documents.

"But Florida has failed either to provide the necessary information to DHS, or to confirm that the necessary information would be available for verification purposes under the SAVE Program," Perez writes.

DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said his department does not comment on pending litigation.

Florida’s push to purge its voter rolls of undocumented voters has sparked fierce criticism from activists and the Obama administration, with the Justice Department issuing a letter to the Florida State Department on May 31 asserting the state’s practices are in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act and requesting they stop. Florida declined to comply with the request, and Perez in his Monday letter asked Florida to “please immediately cease this unlawful conduct.”

“As one would expect with a new program that has not previously been tested against real-world information, your program has critical imperfections, which lead to errors that harm and confuse eligible voters. Especially where the program is based on information collected sometimes years ago from driver’s license applications, the information is often going to be outdated, as a number of persons will subsequently have become citizens and lawfully registered to vote,” Perez wrote in the letter.

Perez added that, “because the State has indicated its unwillingness to comply with these requirements, I have authorized the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court.”

Upon Detzner’s announcement of the suit, a number of activist organizations, including left-leaning MoveOn and the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed outrage. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, called the purge “a colossal nightmare” in a statement, and MoveOn issued a petition calling for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to stop the state's efforts.

Florida is likely to be one of a handful of states to decide the outcome of the November elections, and a Miami Herald report that Democrats, Hispanics, and independents are more likely to be targeted by the purge than whites and Republicans has caused some critics to accuse Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, of playing politics by attempting to dampen turnout among some of President Obama's core supporters.

But on Fox News on Monday, Scott stood by the effort, framing it as necessary to having "fair, honest elections" in Florida.

“I have a job to do to defend the right of legitimate voters,” he said.