TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Gov. Rick Scott, newly empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June that struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, has ordered state officials to resume a fiercely contested effort to remove noncitizens from voting rolls.
The program, which was put in place before the 2012 election, became mired in lawsuits and relentless criticism from opponents who viewed it as harassment and worse a partisan attack by a Republican governor on Latino and Democratic voters.
In a federal lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, an immigrants' voting-rights group charged that the attempt to scrub the voter rolls disproportionately affected minority voters and that the state had failed to get Justice Department clearance as required under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Early this year, in a move to tamp down the uproar over missteps on Election Day, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill undoing some of the measures it approved in 2011 that led to fewer early voting days, problems with absentee ballots, and long lines at the polls.
But Scott, in pushing to resume the voting-roll review, contends that the state has an obligation to protect the integrity of the vote.
"The Supreme Court has allowed our secretary of state to start working with our supervisor of elections to make sure our sacred right to vote is not diluted," he said Tuesday, after a Cabinet meeting.
His decision adds Florida to a growing list of states, including Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Alabama, that have seized on the Supreme Court ruling to advance legislation calling for tougher voting rules or oversight. Texas, Mississippi and Alabama all announced that they would move ahead with strict voter identification card requirements.
The measures have all prompted strong criticism and the threat of more lawsuits. For decades, the Department of Justice and the federal courts provided oversight as part of the Voting Rights Act.
That provision of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in June, allowing states to move forward without the federal permission they were once required to obtain. In Florida, five counties were covered by the law.
In resuming the program, some political strategists said Scott, who is running for re-election next year, could complicate his efforts to attract Latino voters, a group of Floridians that voted by large margins for President Barack Obama and continues to slide into the Democratic column. Even south Florida's Cuban Americans, now younger and less hard-line on Cuba, are no longer the reliable Republican stalwarts they once were.
Forty-eight percent of Cuban Americans voted for Obama last November, according to Obama's campaign.
Noting that the Supreme Court ruling had essentially invalidated the immigrant group's lawsuit, the Florida Department of State sent a letter Friday to the 68 election supervisors, announcing that it would reinstitute the search for noncitizens on the rolls. Unlike the last go-round, the process this time will involve election supervisors, state officials said. The state will also use the more reliable federal immigration database that it sued to gain access to last year.
But the decision puts Florida back in the cross hairs of a divisive partisan battle over voting rights.
"Governor Scott seemingly is bent on suppressing the vote in Florida, with his latest move coming as an unfortunate result of the recent Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who was highly critical of the voter review last year.
Scott risks angering voters with perhaps little payoff, political strategists said. While securing the integrity of the vote is admirable, they say, there is no evidence that noncitizens in Florida are systematically voting.
Last year's attempt at unearthing noncitizens, which initially began with a pool of 182,000 names of potential noncitizens, was winnowed to a list of 2,600. Those named were sent to election supervisors, who found that many were in fact citizens. Ultimately, the list of possible noncitizen voters shrank to 198. Of those, fewer than 40 had voted illegally.
"It's a solution in search of a problem," said Steve Schale, who directed Obama's campaign in Florida in 2008 and was a senior adviser in 2012.
As a result of the chaos during the 2012 election, many Florida voters now lack confidence in the system. This, Schale said, could further alienate them.
"There is a real risk, given the history in Florida, the purges that have happened in the past and what happened in 2012; it could create this hassle for legitimate taxpaying citizens to have to prove they are citizens," he added. "There is definitely a political risk there for Governor Scott."