WASHINGTON — In a victory for Republicans, the federal government has agreed to let Florida use a law enforcement database to challenge people's right to vote if they are suspected of not being U.S. citizens.
The agreement, made in a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott's administration grants the state access to a list of resident noncitizens maintained by the Homeland Security Department. The Obama administration had denied Florida's request for months but relented after a judge ruled in the state's favor in a related voter-purge matter.
Voting rights groups, while acknowledging that noncitizens have no right to vote, have expressed alarm about using such data for a purpose not originally intended: purging voter lists of ineligible people. They also say voter purges less than four months before a presidential election might leave insufficient time to correct mistakes stemming from faulty data or other problems.
Democrats say that the government's concession is less troubling than some GOP-controlled states' push to require voters to show photo identification.
But Republicans count it as a victory nonetheless in their broad-based fight over voter eligibility, an issue that could play a big role in the White House race. That's especially true in pivotal states such as Florida, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina.
Republican officials in several states say they are trying to combat voter fraud. Democrats, however, note that proven cases of voter fraud are rare. They accuse Republicans of cynical efforts to suppress voting by people in lower socio-economic groups who tend to vote Democratic.
The Homeland Security decision may affect places beyond Florida, because Colorado and other states have asked for similar access to the federal database.
After a judge recently ruled against federal efforts to stop Florida's aggressive voter-list review, Homeland Security agreed to work on details for how the state can access the federal SAVE database — Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements — to challenge registered voters suspected of being noncitizens.
Florida has agreed that it can challenge voters only if the state provides a "unique identifier," such as an "alien number," for each person in question. Alien numbers generally are assigned to foreigners living in the country legally, often with visas or other permits such as green cards.
Unless they become naturalized citizens, however, they cannot vote.
The agreement will prevent Florida from using only a name and birthdate to seek federal data about a suspected noncitizen on voter rolls.
The SAVE list is unlikely to catch illegal immigrants in any state who might have managed to register to vote because such people typically would not have an alien number.
Scott, whose administration had sued Homeland Security for access to the SAVE list, said the agreement "marks a significant victory for Florida and for the integrity of our election system."
"Access to the SAVE database will ensure that noncitizens do not vote in future Florida elections," Scott said in a statement Saturday.
In a letter Monday, the department told Florida it was ready to work out details for providing access to the SAVE list. The letter was signed by Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It follows a flurry of legal actions between Florida and the federal government. On June 11, the Justice Department said it would sue Scott's administration on grounds that the state's voter-purge efforts violated voting rights laws.
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