In this firefight, the first shot was Governor Scott’s, the next belonged to the Department of Justice and the winner might just be the civil rights era Voting Rights Act up for Supreme Court review next term. What’s the story? Governor Scott’s chief election official announced Florida’s intention to sue the Department of Homeland Security for access to a federal database that would help state officials better identify and remove non-citizens currently on their voter rolls. Moments later the Justice Department counter-sued Florida for violation of federal laws. Why? Unlike other Southern States, from Alabama to Mississippi to Virginia, the state of Florida is not covered as a whole but it does have five jurisdictions subject to Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Passed in an effort to outlaw discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions to seek preclearance from federal judges, or the Department of Justice, before changes can be made “to any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting.” Florida’s unilateral action was in violation of this act.
Viewed in the context of the importance of the Hispanic vote to this year’s election (as we discussed on our podcast), it’s clear why the Republicans, who must win Florida, tried to purge the state voting rolls of suspected “non-citizens.” But the hurdle of federal law was compounded by the fact that the process didn’t even look kosher: the most recent list of potential non-citizens on the voter list is 2,700 names long, and already about 500 have been identified as citizens, according to the Miami Herald. In a cease and desist letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said explained that because of Florida’s “unwillingness to comply” with the requirements of the Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, he was authorizing “the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court.”