A top lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil rights division wants Florida officials to explain why they’ve unilaterally decided to purge the state’s voter rolls of non-U.S. citizens just months before a key primary in the 2012 elections — an apparent violation of provisions in the landmark Voting Rights Act. In a two-page letter, T. Christian Herren, chief lawyer for Justice’s Voting Rights division, told Florida’s secretary of state that officials’ decision to comb the rolls for foreign nationals was launched without consulting Attorney General Eric Holder or asking permission from a federal court, long-standing requirements under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Further, Herren writes, the state hasn’t officially justified why it launched the scrub, which activists say is haphazard, subjective and disproportionately hurts minority voters. At the same time, the practice is happening less than 90 days before an upcoming statewide election, which “appears to violate the National Voter Registration Act,” Herren said. “Please advise whether the state intends to cease the practice … so the [Justice Department] can determine what further action, if any, is necessary.”
Herren’s letter is the latest twist in Florida authorities’ attempt to update the state’s voting rolls — a move activists say is intended to suppress the vote but supporters say is necessary to prevent fraud. Last month, under Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, state administrators began comparing lists of registered voters against drivers’ license records, state employee rosters and other databases to determine if foreign nationals have illegally registered to vote. If the comparison indicates the voter is not an American citizen, he or she will receive a notification letter giving them 60 days to provide proof or be stricken from the rolls.
But voter registration organizations and liberal activists cried foul, claiming that the system is an end run around Voting Rights Act provisions to keep minorities — including naturalized Hatians and Latinos — away from the polls. One such group, The Advancement Project, sent a letter to the Justice Department alleging the system is poorly designed and has snared dozens of native-born citizens who have legally voted for years.