UPDATED 4:40 p.m: This story has been updated to include information from the Justice Department’s lawsuit.
The Justice Department announced this afternoon that it has filed a lawsuit against Florida and its Secretary of State alleging that the state has violated federal law by purging its voter rolls.
The department says that Florida has violated the “Motor Voter” Act of 1993 by purging its voter rolls within the 90-day “quiet period” before a federal election. Additionally, the complaint alleges that Florida’s purge of the voter registration rolls was unreliable and inaccurate.
“The Department of Justice has an overriding interest in protecting the rights of eligible citizens to register and vote free from unlawful burdens, while at the same time ensuring that ineligible persons do not register and vote in federal elections in violation of the law,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The department is committed to enforcing the National Voter Registration Act so that these objectives are met.”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Tuesday morning, Attorney General Eric Holder said he “tried to reason” with Florida political leaders but is now prepared to go to court in response to the state’s controversial purge of its voter rolls.
The Attorney General said that the Justice Department will be “strong” in its defense of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, calling the right to vote the “lifeblood” of democracy.
“I’m not advocating for a party,” Holder said, “I’m advocating for a principle.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) said on Tuesday that state legislatures across the country have recently passed restrictive voting laws. Only three states did not consider voter ID legislation last year, and since 2001 46 have introduced nearly 1,000 voter ID bills, said the lawmaker. He said he has concerns these added restrictions will work to disenfranchise certain voters, including minorities and the poor, among others.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he is “disturbed” by the approach the Attorney General has taken, calling it a “danger to the integrity of the ballot.”
“Without voter identification someone can walk in to a voting booth and just say they’re John Jones and vote for that person,” said the lawmaker.
Two weeks ago, the Justice Department’s Voting Section chief, T. Christian Herron, wrote to Florida lawmakers, saying they must have federal approval for any changes to voting procedures. Removing voters from rolls is illegal within 90 days of a federal election, Herron said. Florida is scheduled to hold a primary election on August 14.
Holder said last week the order to Florida to stop the plan to purge its voter list was not a political ploy.
At a House Judiciary Committe oversight hearing last week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) criticized the Justice Department for creating a “back-up” in Washington. The lawmaker said that Florida’s government requested updated voter rolls from the Department of Homeland Security 9 months ago so it could purge its voter lists before the 90-day cut-off mandated by the Motor Voter law. It is the Attorney General’s responsibility to “advise” the Department of Homeland Security, the lawmaker said.
“With all due respect, Mr. Attorney General, there is a problem here,” Sensenbrenner said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked the Department of Justice to investigate voting laws passed by Florida and 13 other states in late 2011.
The department conducted similar probes in several other states, including Texas and South Carolina. Since October 2011, the Justice Department has objected to five different voting changes around the country on the ground that those changes were discriminatory.
On Monday, Attorney General Holder told the League of Women Voters the Justice Department has challenged Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina because “those laws disproportionally and adversely affect the rights of minority voters.”