TALLAHASSEE, Fla., May 31 (UPI) -- The U.S. Justice Department Thursday told Florida the state's purge of voter rolls is illegal under federal law and ordered state officials to cease the purge.
In a letter to Florida officials Christian Herren, the head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said the state's search for non-citizens on voters rolls is being carried out in a manner that violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, The Miami Herald reported.
The Voting Rights act protects minorities' voting rights while the voter registration act prohibits states from "systematically" removing ineligible voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election.
Herren notified Florida officials the state had not submitted the changes to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia or to the U.S. Attorney General for review, as required by federal law.
"Accordingly, it is necessary that they either be brought before that court or submitted to the Attorney General for a determination that they neither have the purpose nor will have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group under Section 5," Herren wrote.
The Justice Department official directed Florida to "inform us by June 6 ... whether the State intends to cease the practice discussed above, so that the Department can determine what further action, if any, is necessary."
Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections, said state officials "disagree with their interpretation," but declined to be specific about the nature of the disagreement, the Herald reported.
The letter came the same day a federal judge in Florida blocked enforcement of some provisions of a state law restricting third-party participation in registering voters.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle found a 48-hour deadline for groups to turn in new voter registration forms is "harsh and impractical" but ruled most other provisions of the law -- enacted under Republican Gov. Rick Scott -- may stand, the Herald reported.
The third-party restriction had prompted the League of Women voters to stop registering voters in Florida. Critics of the law have said it is part of a wider campaign to make it more difficult to vote in battleground states, including Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
"Together speech and voting are constitutional rights of special significance; they are the rights most protective of all others, joined in this respect by the ability to vindicate one's rights in a federal court. … [W]hen a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever," Hinkle wrote in his opinion. "And allowing responsible organizations to conduct voter-registration drives -- thus making it easier for citizens to register and vote -- promotes democracy."
In New York, the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice -- which represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit on which Hinkle ruled, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, and Rock the Vote -- said the law "included onerous restrictions on community-based voter registration drives" and called the federal judge's decision "a breakthrough victory for Florida voters and voting rights advocates nationwide."
The Brennan Center said the decision "found that the Constitution and federal law prohibit most of Florida's recently passed restrictions, and highlighted the law's impact on the plaintiffs' constitutional rights."
The U.S. Justice Department has filed a separate lawsuit challenging a Florida law restricting voter registration and early voting, and has challenged voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas. A Wisconsin judge has ruled that state's voter ID law violates the Wisconsin Constitution.