By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Voter protection groups said on Thursday Florida election officials had reneged on an agreement to ease up on efforts to purge non-U.S. citizens from voter rolls and accused the Republican-led administration of trying to intimidate voters.
Earlier this month, voting groups had dropped a legal challenge to a state purge of voter lists after Florida election officials said they had greatly reduced the number of potentially ineligible voters due to errors on an original list.
But on Wednesday, Department of State officials sent a new list of 198 names to county election supervisors culled from a Department of Homeland Security's database that tracks residency status.
The new purge effort was "not within the spirit of our agreement," said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection for Advancement Project, a Washington D.C.-based racial justice advocacy group. "It creates intimidation and confusion and the state knows very well this is going to get some eligible voters."
The move was the latest in a series of complex developments on voter registration in the key battleground state of Florida, the state which famously decided the 2000 election in which George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore after a legal battle over Florida's results that went to the Supreme Court.
Advocacy groups say the push to purge the voter rolls of non-citizens is a thinly veiled attempt to disqualify and intimidate Hispanic and African-American voters, as well as other recent immigrants, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Florida is among a handful of Republican-led states that have passed laws in recent years to tighten voter requirements.
"We have a responsibility to ensure Florida's voter rolls are current and accurate," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the department. "The process to identify potential non-citizens has been a careful, thorough and legally-sound process to uphold the integrity of Florida elections by making sure ineligible voters can't cast a ballot."
Florida Governor Rick Scott has maintained that his only motive is ensuring that the ballots of eligible voters are "not diluted" by ballots cast by non-citizens, convicted felons and others who have not properly registered to vote.
Five voter protection groups and two individual plaintiffs are suing Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and seeking an injunction against the purge, claiming it violates the National Voter Registration Act, which the groups say bars such purges 90 days before an election.
"To have these efforts come so close to the election is shocking," Culliton-Gonzalez of the Advancement Project said.
"The numbers they are talking about are infinitesimally small. Florida has nearly 11.5 million registered voters, yet they are subjecting legitimate voters to this type of scrutiny."
A Florida federal judge has scheduled a hearing next Monday in the lawsuit to block removal of possibly ineligible voters from registration rolls before the November elections.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Kevin Gray and Claudia Parsons)