The federal government has granted Florida election officials access to a database of noncitizen residents for use in Republican-backed efforts to remove people who are not American citizens from voter registration rolls.
The decision by the Department of Homeland Security, which came after efforts by the Obama administration to block access, was issued in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and made public on Saturday. Mr. Scott, along with the state’s Republicans, had been pushing for months to gain access to the database, which is maintained by the department, arguing that it would allow for a more accurate review of voter lists.
The decision could give a boost to what has become a broad push by Republicans in several states to prevent voter fraud by expunging what they say are thousands of ineligible noncitizens from voter lists.
Opponents of the Republican effort, who recognize that people who are not American citizens have no right to vote, have argued that the federal database, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, was never intended to be used for purging voter lists. They have also charged that the purge could violate voters’ rights laws and be used to discriminate against minorities. With so little time left before elections, they argue, anyone wrongfully purged could be barred from voting anyway.
In June, Florida election officials were forced to halt the search for illegally registered voters amid fears that the lists of suspected noncitizens were deemed outdated and inaccurate.
But a few weeks later, a federal judge struck down a Justice Department request to halt the voter review indefinitely. Mr. Scott has insisted that the review was directed solely at preventing ineligible voters from participating in coming elections, including a primary set for Aug. 14. In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Scott hailed the decision to grant access to the database as a “step in the right direction.”
“We’ve already confirmed that noncitizens have voted in past elections here in Florida,” he said. “Now that we have the cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security, our state can use the most accurate citizenship database in the nation to protect the integrity of Florida’s election process.”
Florida is not the first state to gain access to the SAVE database. The letter granting Florida permission to use it, which was dated July 9, says that five counties in Arizona are now doing so. Colorado has also sought access to the database as part of an effort to cleanse voter lists spearheaded by its Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler. The program provides immigration status information from more than 100 million records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the letter — signed by a Homeland Security official, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services — to verify the citizenship status of people registered to vote in Florida, officials must provide evidence, like an alien number, that the person is indeed a noncitizen. Those numbers are typically given to people who are living in the country legally as noncitizens. Under federal law, such individuals are not permitted to vote. The SAVE database can provide no information on illegal immigrants who may have registered to vote.
That restriction will prevent Florida from solely using driver’s license information, as it did when the state compiled its initial list of 182,000 voters believed to be noncitizens. That list was then pared down to 2,600, of which 107 were found to have been registered to vote illegally, according to The Orlando Sentinel.
Civil liberties and voters’ rights groups said on Saturday that while access to the database could provide more accurate information about ineligible voters, the presence of noncitizens on voter lists was likely negligible.
“It’s possible to imagine a few limited scenarios in which this could occur,” said Ben Hovland of the Fair Elections Legal Network, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “I think the amount of effort some states are dedicating to this is really a shame when those efforts could go to encouraging citizens to vote.”
There were also fears that a new push to purge the voter lists in Florida ahead of the August primary and November general elections could lead to mistakes that give people wrongly expunged little time to address the error. Howard Simon of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that his and other groups would likely seek an injunction to halt any review until after this election cycle.
In a letter Saturday to Florida election officials, Ken Detzner, the secretary of state, said that the verification would begin as soon as an agreement is signed with the Department of Homeland Security and election officials are trained to use it.
“It is an unfortunate but now undeniable fact that Florida’s voter rolls include a number of noncitizens,” Mr. Detzner said. “These ineligible registered voters must be removed to ensure the integrity of our elections.”