adora-obi-nweze_web.jpgMIAMI (AP) — A lawyer for Florida's local election officials on Friday advised them to stop a state-directed effort to identify and purge ineligible voters until its legality is resolved. The U.S. Justice Department, in a letter last Thursday night, demanded a halt to the search for non-citizen voters, which began at the urging of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, because the process appears to violate federal law.

State Association of Supervisors of Elections president Vicki Davis, the supervisor in Martin County, said she believed all 67 supervisors will follow the advice of their legal adviser, Ron Labasky. With the exception of Miami-Dade County's appointed supervisor, they are independently elected officials.

“It's illegal under federal law and I'm going to follow the law,” said Ion Sancho, the supervisor in Leon County.

Hours before the Justice Department letter arrived, a federal judge in Tallahassee temporarily blocked new state restrictions on voter registration drives, saying it's likely opponents would win a lawsuit claiming those provisions are unconstitutional.

Both developments, just months before Florida is set to play a key role in this year's presidential election, are examples of what Democrats and voting rights activists say are attempts by ruling Republicans to suppress voter turnout.

“There is no other explanation except this is trying to gin up the conspiracy theory that the election's going to be stolen,” said University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, a voting rights expert. “It's definitely hardball politics.”

Republicans, though, say the only thing they're trying to suppress is election fraud.

Scott said the Justice Department letter was still under review but he insisted his intent was nonpolitical.

“I was elected to enforce the laws of the land and, when you vote, you want to make sure it's a fair election,” Scott said in Miami, where he attended events marking the start of the 2012 hurricane season.

The state's procedures for identifying non-U.S. citizens have not been reviewed by the Justice Department to make sure they don't discriminate, wrote T. Christian Herren in the letter to Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner. Herren is voting section chief in the federal agency's Civil Rights Division.

Changes in Florida voting procedures must get Justice Department approval because five counties are covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 due to past racial discrimination.

Herren also wrote that removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of an election appears to violate a federal voting law. Florida's primary election is Aug. 14.

The letter gave Florida until this Wednesday to tell federal authorities if the state plans to halt the purge.

Even before the Justice Department's letter, the state's purge had come under fire from elections supervisors of both parties, as well as Democratic members of Congress and voting rights groups.

Six Democratic members of Congress called on Scott to suspend the purge. They sent a letter to Scott questioning the timing and the accuracy of the effort to purge voters identified as non U.S. citizens.

The state has already put out an initial list of more than 2,600 people identified as non-U.S. citizens. But local election officials charged with checking the list have discovered errors.

State election officials have compared driver's licenses with voter registration data and found that as many as 182,000 registered voters are eligible to be in the country but ineligible to vote.

Congressman Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Miami  were among those signing the letter. The others are U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

The NAACP, meanwhile, joined criticism of the purge and commended the Department of Justice for demanding that it be halted.

“The action of the Department of Justice to stop Florida’s illegal voter purge preserves the rights of citizens to register, remain on the rolls, and cast a ballot that gets counted on Election Day,” said Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze in a statement.

NAACP national president/CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous described the purge as “an example of the extremist state officials’ relentless attack on voting rights.”

South Florida Times staff contributed to this report.

Photo: Adora Obi Nweze