On June 8, 2012, the Lawyers’ Committee along with the ACLU and the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP filed suit in federal court in Florida against the Florida Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, regarding Florida’s implementation of new voter registration procedures without obtaining the required preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs included Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to working with the Latino community to increase civic participation, and two individuals who are naturalized U.S. citizens and who registered to vote in Florida, Murat Limage and Pamela Gomez.
In April 2012, Secretary Detzner instituted a new procedure for purging the voter registration rolls by distributing to county election officials a list of over 2,600 registered voters who he said are “potential non-citizens” with instructions that election officials should institute proceedings to remove these individuals from the registration rolls. The Secretary’s list was generated by an attempted comparison of the statewide voter registration database with records of the state motor vehicle agency. The motor vehicle records are supposed to indicate those individuals who, at the time they obtained their driver’s license, were legally in the country but were non-citizens. The Secretary claimed that, overall, this matching procedure identified about 180,000 registered voters who might not be citizens.
At the time, five Florida counties were covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and, accordingly, the State could not implement any new voting procedure in these counties without first obtaining federal preclearance. The Secretary, however, implemented the new registration procedure without seeking preclearance. The Secretary’s list contained many individuals who are U.S. citizens, including persons born in the United States and individuals who became naturalized citizens after they obtained their driver’s license and then registered to vote legally (such as the two individual plaintiffs).
After this lawsuit was filed, and after the media and county election officials also complained about the defects in the Secretary’s list, the Secretary abandoned the new procedure. However, the Secretary then instituted another new purge procedure in July 2012 based on data obtained from the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (“SAVE”) system, which is designed to check whether individuals qualify for public benefits. Using SAVE, the State identified fewer than 200 individuals who are registered to vote who may not be citizens.
Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging that that this new procedure also must receive Section 5 preclearance. The Secretary responded by asking the Court to dismiss the lawsuit, which the Court denied. The Court held that the Secretary of State is a proper defendant, and that plaintiffs had properly pled their suit under Section 5.
The case was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder as to the constitutionality of Congress’ reauthorization of Section 5 in 2006. While the stay was in effect, the Secretary agreed to not forward to county election officials any additional names of persons flagged as alleged potential non-citizens. However, following the Court’s ruling in Shelby County, plaintiffs agreed to voluntarily dismiss this lawsuit.