By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department and Florida exchanged legal salvoes on Monday over the state's controversial effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from its voter rolls ahead of this year's presidential election.
Florida fired the first shot, filing a lawsuit against the federal government seeking access to a national database detailing citizenship information as part of its drive to verify whether non-citizens are illegally registered to vote in the state.
Moments later, the Justice Department responded and said it had initiated steps to sue Florida for violating federal voting laws.
The maneuvering escalated a legal battle between Washington and Republican Governor Rick Scott over his push to purge Florida's voter lists, which is alleged to have misidentified hundreds of people who turned out to be U.S. citizens.
Supporters of the purge say it is aimed at clearing voter rolls of non-citizens. However, critics call it a part of long-running Republican efforts to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots.
Florida, which President Barack Obama won by 2.8 percent in 2008, is expected to be a key swing state in the November 6 presidential election.
Officials initially said they were examining about 180,000 potential non-citizens. The state has identified about 2,700 registered voters who have been asked to produce proof of citizenship. According to the Miami Herald, 47 non-citizens who may have cast unlawful ballots have been found so far.
Filed in a U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., Florida's lawsuit accused the federal government of preventing the state from being able to check the citizenship status of voters by denying it access to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database listing information on U.S. citizens.
"For nearly a year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has failed to meet its legal obligation to provide us the information necessary to identify and remove ineligible voters from Florida's voter rolls," Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in a statement.
"We can't let the federal government delay our efforts to uphold the integrity of Florida elections any longer," he said.
FEDERAL CONCERN ABOUT "INACCURACIES"
The Justice Department has called on the state to halt the effort.
Last week, in a letter responding to a Justice Department statement that the purge could be illegal, Detzner said that it was the Obama administration that appeared to be violating the law by not granting Florida access to the database known as SAVE.
On Monday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez wrote back to Detzner in a strongly worded five-page letter and said it "appears that the State of Florida is unwilling to conform its behavior to the requirements of federal law."
Perez warned that Florida's ongoing search and purging of non-eligible voters may violate the National Voter Registration Act, which requires that adjustments to voting rolls be made more than 90 days before an election. Florida holds a primary election on August 14.
He said because of Florida's "unwillingness to comply with these requirements, I have authorized the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court."
Perez also said he was concerned about "inaccuracies" in the state's request for access to SAVE.
"The SAVE Program relies on DHS records, which do not include a comprehensive and definitive listing of U.S. citizens and does not include, for example, those born in the United States," he said.
He said Florida had failed to provide key information to cross-reference with the database including alien registration numbers or certificate numbers found on immigration-related documents.
"Florida has failed either to provide the necessary information to DHS, or to confirm that the necessary information would be available for verification purposes under the SAVE program," he said.
"As a result the significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation," Perez added.
According to the Miami Herald, Florida's current list of potential non-citizen voters includes many people who are lawful citizens. One voter singled out as suspicious turned out to be a Brooklyn-born World War Two hero with a Bronze Star from the Battle of the Bulge.
A disproportionate number of those identified are either Hispanic or black, the newspaper said.
Last week, civil rights groups filed a legal challenge to the purge, arguing it violates legislation to protect minorities.
Scott defended the state's effort in comments to Fox News and argued he had little choice but to file the lawsuit.
"We want to have fair, honest elections in our state," he said. "We've been put in the position of having to sue the federal government to get this information."
(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee; Editing by Eric Walsh)