Several groups and individuals on Friday asked a federal court to block Florida from carrying out its purge of potentially ineligible voters from the rolls.
A Hispanic civic organization and two naturalized citizens _ backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others _ filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa seeking to halt the purge. Two days ago, the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected calls by the federal government to stop the effort.
"The illegal program to purge eligible voters uses inaccurate information to remove eligible citizens from the voter rolls," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "...We now look to the courts to stop the Scott administration from assaulting democracy by denying American citizens the right to vote."
The lawsuit is likely to have little immediate impact because most local election supervisors have halted the removal of voters, citing conflicting legal opinions from the federal government and state officials.
But this latest skirmish ensures the dispute _ which has taken on a sharp partisan edge months before the 2012 presidential election and 12 years after the disputed Florida recount that decided the 2000 presidential contest _ will not go away soon. Local supervisors say they have been flooded with emails from tea party activists demanding support for the governor's position.
A Florida Department of State spokesman, Chris Cate, defended the continued push to remove voters. He insisted that no eligible voters have been removed as a "result of our efforts to ensure the integrity of Florida elections."
"We have a year-round responsibility to ensure that the votes of U.S. citizens aren't diminished by the votes of non-citizens, and we take this responsibility very seriously," Cate said.
Scott last year urged state elections officials to start looking for non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls. An initial comparison of driver's license records with voter registration records turned up as many as 182,000 registered voters who may not be U.S. citizens.
But state officials did not release that list and instead sought access to a federal immigration database to verify the matches. That request so far has been turned down by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Earlier this year, state officials sent to local election officials a much smaller list of more than 2,600 voters and asked them to check the names. Voters who did not respond to supervisors could ultimately be removed from the rolls.
Local election supervisors, however, have questioned the accuracy of the list because hundreds on it have turned out to be citizens. The U.S. Department of Justice on May 31 sent a letter to Florida contending the purge violates federal law. The state earlier this week said it disagreed with federal authorities.
State email records show the Department of State has already started circulating a list internally that shows 86 non-citizens have been removed from the voter rolls since April 11, and that nearly half of them had voted in previous elections.
But some of the names that have been removed in recent weeks were discovered by supervisors independently and did not come from the list distributed by the state.
Murat Limage, a Haitian American who was part of the lawsuit filed Friday, became a naturalized citizen in October 2010 and registered to vote afterward. But he said he received a letter this spring asking to prove his citizenship.
"When I received the letter saying that they had information that I may not be a citizen, I was concerned that someone was taking away my citizenship," Limage said in a statement. "I'm an American which means I can vote and that's all I want to do."
Limage and Pamela Gomez, both of Hillsborough County, and the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund sued the state.
The lawsuit contends that the voter purge violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because the procedures used to identify potentially ineligible voters have not been reviewed by the Justice Department. Florida must secure approval for changes in voting procedures because five counties are still covered by the law due to a past history of discrimination.
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout