MIAMI (Reuters) - Civil rights groups filed a legal challenge on Friday to Florida's controversial effort to purge its voter lists prior to the November presidential election.
"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 Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Other groups behind the lawsuit include the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges.
Supporters of Florida's voter purge, which has been vigorously pursued under Republican Governor Rick Scott, say it is aimed at clearing voter rolls of non-citizens. But critics call it part of long-running Republican effort 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.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Florida's Department of Elections are already locked in a dispute over the voter list purge, which is alleged to have misidentified hundreds of possible non-citizens as illegally registered to vote.
The purge requires legally registered voters who have mistakenly been placed on the list to re-verify their citizenship or lose their ability to vote.
The lawsuit argues that far from protecting citizen's voting rights as state officials claim, the purge violates legislation to protect minorities. A disproportionate number of those identified on a state list of 2,700 possible non-citizens are either Hispanic or black.
"This is precisely why Congress has re-enacted, and why we continue to need, the Voting Rights Act - to prevent state officials from interfering with the constitutional rights of minorities," said Simon.
The civil rights groups say they sent a letter to Florida's Secretary of State Ken Detzner on June 1 advising that the voter purge also failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which requires that adjustments to voting rolls be done more than 90 days before an election, noting that Florida's primary election is August 14.
NATURALIZED CITIZENS TARGETED
In a letter last week, the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, warned Florida's secretary of state that the ongoing search for and purging of non-eligible voters in Florida appeared to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects minorities.
Detzner wrote back saying Florida's actions were consistent with federal voting laws and his pointed comments indicated that Florida had no immediate intention of giving up its voter scrub effort.
"The Florida Department of State has a solemn obligation to ensure the integrity of elections in this state," Detzner wrote.
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.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of two recently naturalized U.S. citizens from the Tampa area, Murat Limage, a Haitian-American, and Pamela Gomez, who is a Dominican-American.
Limage became a naturalized U.S. citizen in October 2010 and registered to vote a month later but was one of those who received written notice from an elections official insisting that he re-verify his citizenship within 30 days or be removed from the voting rolls, the lawsuit states.
The letters were sent to Limage and others by local elections officials at the request of Detzner based on inaccurate and outdated information from the state's database of driver's licenses.
"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, according to the lawsuit. "I'm an American which means I can vote and that's all I want to do."
The lawsuit notes that five Florida counties are covered by the Voting Rights Act, which stipulates that changes in voting procedure require federal approval. The counties include Hillsborough where Limage is registered.
In addition to being inaccurate and outdated, the state's list sent to local elections offices disproportionately targets Hispanics, the lawsuit states.
It said that of those singled out to prove their citizenship, 61 percent were Hispanic even though only 14 percent of registered Florida voters are Hispanic.
(Reporting by David Adams and Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)