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U.S. says Florida's voter purge violates federal law

The U.S. Justice Department has filed papers in federal court in Tampa asserting that Florida's efforts to purge the voter rolls of non-citizens is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The July 27 filing, known as a statement of interest, asserts that before Florida began scrubbing the rolls in search of non-citizens, it was required to submit the proposal to the federal government. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, five "covered" Florida counties are subject to a process known as pre-clearance: Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.

The feds say Florida never submitted the new "citizenship list maintenance practices" to them for approval, even though they did submit an unrelated change for review in 2011 -- the use of Social Security numbers to verify that a voter had died. 

The latest federal action follows a defeat before another judge, Robert Hinkle, who ruled in June that a law that bars the systematic removal of voters less than 90 days before a federal election does not specifically include noncitizens. The same Justice Department lawyer who unsuccessfully argued that case (John Albert Russ IV) filed the latest protest.

Directing its argument at Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the feds wrote: "The Secretary of State cannot now allege that the voting practice he initiated (and that the covered counties implemented at his direction) is completely abandoned, because the change has already affected voters in the covered counties. The implementation of these new practices and procedures without preclearance violates Section 5."

The federal submission is in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Florida and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law seeking to halt any further purging of the voter rolls in Florida.

In Hillsborough, officials discovered one case in which a non-citizen cast a vote in an election: Ecuadorian national Luis Ortega voted in the 2006 general election. The county elections office referred Ortega's case to the state attorney for review, but State Attorney Mark Ober has decided not to prosecute Ortega because the three-year statute of limitations has expired.

-- Steve Bousquet