TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A judge on Wednesday rejected a request by federal authorities to block Florida's contentious move to remove potentially ineligible voters from its rolls.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said there was nothing in federal voting laws that prevent the state from identifying voters who may not be U.S. citizens 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 it was going on too close to 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 "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.
Gov. Rick Scott, who first initiated the push to identify non-citizens on the voter rolls, 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.
State officials already asked local election supervisors to check out the citizenship status of more than 2,600 voters. It also has a list of 182,000 voters it has not yet distributed.
A spokesman for Scott said the state will not distribute that longer list unless the state first 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.
Most counties in Florida had already stopped removing voters due to the legal clash over whether the purge was allowed within 90 days of an election. But both Lee and Collier county officials say they will remove voters given to them by the state if people fail to respond to mail requests and a newspaper notice.
Brian Burgess told reporters that state election officials have no plans to tell Lee and Collier election officials to stop their actions although Hinkle repeatedly raised questions about Collier during the hearing. The county in southwestern Florida county is one of five that must get any changes in voting laws reviewed by federal officials because of a past history of discrimination.
Last year, Florida compared driver's license records with voter registration records and came up with the list of registered voters who may not be U.S. citizens. The state distributed the smaller list in April. 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.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued earlier this month to get Florida to stop the purge, while voting groups have also filed their own lawsuits in federal courts in Tampa and Miami.
John Russ, a lawyer with the voting section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said he could not answer questions after the hearing about whether federal authorities plan to appeal.
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