By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott's administration is abandoning its renewed effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls, the state's top elections official announced on Thursday.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, in a memo to county election supervisors, said the latest attempt at a purge, which two years ago set off a number of legal challenges from voting rights groups, would be postponed until next year.
He said the state planned to wait until a new federal database, which helps track potential ineligible voters, is up and running.
The decision comes after Scott, a Republican, faced heavy criticism over Florida's attempts to identify people who are not American citizens on voter lists months ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.
Running for re-election this year, Scott has repeatedly said the aim of his efforts is to protect the integrity of the voter rolls.
However, advocacy groups have called the review of non-citizens a thinly veiled attempt to disqualify Hispanic and African-American voters who tend to vote for Democractic candidates.
The state's effort in 2012 sparked several lawsuits, including one by the U.S. Justice Department, which claimed the purge violated federal law since it was conducted less than 90 days before the election.
Florida officials at the time said they had drawn up an initial list of 182,000 potential non-citizens. But that number was reduced to fewer than 200 after election officials acknowledged errors on the original list.
Ion Sancho, a veteran Leon County elections supervisor, said he welcomed the state's decision.
"The number of ineligible individuals on Florida databases is statistically insignificant," he said. "The last thing supervisors need is another partisan-driven event to complicate our lives. The entire process has been driven by partisan politics, rather than voter integrity."
In identifying potential non-citizens two years ago, Florida officials sent their information to county election supervisors who then mailed letters to voters requesting proof of citizenship.
If no response was received, the voter was dropped from the rolls.
The effort was the subject of lawsuits from five voter protection groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Deirdre Macnab, the group's president, praised the state's decision to put off the purge, which Scott's administration calls "Project Integrity."
"Independently elected supervisors of election are already standing sentry on making sure that only eligible citizens are voting," she said.
"Programs like 'Project Integrity' have proven, time and time again, to disproportionately impact minority voters and erroneously disenfranchise those that are eligible."
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Gunna Dickson)